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BlackBerry subsidiary QNX sees opportunity in potholes, broken elevators

In-car QNX Software technology is pictured in Ottawa on July 13, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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In-car QNX Software technology is pictured in Ottawa on July 13, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

TORONTO - Finally, someone might fix those potholes littering your neighbourhood.

At least that's the hope of developers at Ottawa-based QNX Software Systems, who foresee equipping cars with sensors that automatically send data on road conditions — such as potholes — to city officials.

"If a car is hitting a crazy bump at a similar GPS location and other cars are doing the same, (the vehicle) can actually share that information with the municipality . . . Wouldn't it be nice if you could actually prioritize the problems?" asks Derek Kuhn, vice-president of sales and marketing for QNX.

QNX, which was acquired by BlackBerry (TSX:BB) four years ago, wants to lift the veil of mystery how machines can provide detailed information about everyday life.

Broken elevators are an annoyance for most people, but QNX sees them as an opportunity. Kuhn says the company's technology can use sensors inside the elevator to help mechanics determine the problem before they step inside the building and give them the chance to have replacement parts at the ready.

"We are able to share things so there can be efficiencies," Kuhn says.

The initiative is the backbone of Project Ion, a development underway at BlackBerry that's intended provide analytics data for various industries. It's part of the "Internet of Things" movement, a buzzy phrase used to describe the technology which connects various objects to one network.

"It's the things that we don't think have any kind of computing brain," Kuhn says.

Still in its infancy, it's widely expected that more devices used throughout our daily lives — from automobiles to fridges — will be linked on a network which allows remote access and control of information.

BlackBerry believes its handsets, QNX's software, and the security infrastructure between them, can play a major role in building out the next stage in the digital evolution.

QNX developed the smartphone operating system that became the platform for BlackBerry 10 phones, but a growing part of its business relies on partnerships with automakers for dashboard "infotainment" systems and what will ultimately be a vehicle that's connected to the outside world.

The company's software is also frequently used in medical devices to help manufacturers develop some defibrillators as well as patient monitoring and blood analysis systems.

Pinpoint accuracy that's built into QNX software allows variations of the technology to be used in everything from laser eye surgery equipment to autonomous forklifts.

Despite its presence in so many different technologies, QNX is still a widely misunderstood company that hasn't mainstream recognition.

"We're not prone to being a household brand," Kuhn said. "We've just always been behind things that are cool."

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