Move over Silicon Valley, Japan is still light years ahead
Japan was, at one time, seen as the de-facto leader of technological innovation. It was the hub for robotics, connectivity and bleeding-edge tech. In recent years, decades even, that vision has been steadily eroded. Silicon Valley and the surge of American hardware and software have stolen the limelight from their Japanese rivals. In Japan, the idea of teleconferencing and remote working are new ideas – in Europe and America, they are the status quo.
However, technological innovation in Japan hasn’t stalled. While it’s true that the rest of the world has moved towards a different model of service-based goods, Japan is still pushing technological creativity in a way the West still struggles to emulate. One look at Fujitsu’s RoboPin shows you just how far behind the West is in understanding how to create genuinely useful robots.
At this year’s Fujitsu Forum it was apparent that the many startups and product development teams at Japanese corporations look at the world not from a standpoint of how to make money, but how to improve people’s lives. Due to this outlook on technology as a societal enabler, some of the most interesting technology projects are still taking place within Japan.
Helping the visually impaired see again
The most impressive device at this year’s Fujitsu Forum came from OtonGlass. Designed to improve life for both the visually impaired and those with dyslexia, these 3D-printed spectacles can interpret the world around you and relay the information via natural language descriptions.
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A front-facing camera mounted on the bridge of the glasses captures the image, while a processing unit deciphers what’s been seen. It then describes what it can see and relays that information back to you via a connected earphone. In Japanese, it allows those who are hard of sight to understand what’s around them at any given point, describing a particular scene or text through spoken word. OtonGlass’ creators see the device as a means to enable those who are visually impaired to “see” again as well as assisting those who have a hard time reading and understanding Japanese.
However, the real innovation comes from its integration with Google Cloud Vision’s translation capabilities. Now, with the push of a button, a non-Japanese speaker can look at signs and have them read aloud in English.
As OtonGlass is still in its early stages it takes a little while for images to process and translate. The glasses themselves are anything but discreet, with a HDMI cable connecting to a shoulder-slung battery pack and processing unit. In time, the goal is that OtonGlass will become a completely unobtrusive product that’s no different from a pair of glasses – but that’s still some way off.
While there are questions around just how profitable such a product can be – principally because it runs off an easily replicable combination of a Raspberry Pi and Google’s cloud services – its usefulness is undeniable.
Keeping the elderly safe
Japan’s older population is growing at a scale that many other nations in the world haven’t yet experienced. Now that a record number of people are living past the age of 100, there’s a real feeling among Japanese developers that they need to address the problems an increasingly elderly society presents. With proportionally fewer younger people to support this ageing population, technology has to fill the gap, and that’s where Fujitsu’s smart speaker and home monitoring device comes into play.
As a small device, no larger than your average air freshener, it’s capable of monitoring a home and letting family members or a central care service know when something of concern arises. It’s able to monitor movement within a household and, if no movement is detected over a set period, it’ll ping the trusted family member with a message to check on the individual involved or send an alert to a designated care team.
It also has a humidity and heat sensor embedded into it – Japan’s older population sometimes have trouble really knowing when they’re spending too long inside an overly hot or stifling environment.
The technology has already rolled out across many Japanese care homes, and it’s available to members of the public to install in homes too. Like OtonGlass, it’s not technologically groundbreaking, but it combines existing technologies in a way that lends itself towards improving the quality of life older members of society.
This isn’t an inherently Japanese problem either. Europe faces similar issues but, crucially, the Western world isn’t turning to technology in quite the same way. There are monitoring devices that work via cameras, and assistive technologies around the home, but an unobtrusive solution like this hasn’t yet broken into the market.
Enabling the deaf to feel sound
Ontema was inspired by the most unusual idea: a member of the development team explained that its creator came up with the idea by envisioning hair as a communications interface for humans.
At its most basic level, Ontema is a digital synesthesia device; a hairclip which converts sound into a combination of touch and visual stimulus, enabling hearing-impaired users to feel and experience the sound of the environment they’re in. By donning the Ontema hairclip, users can be alerted to nearby sounds or even engage in traditional formats of media in ways they may previously have been unable to.
Because Ontema picks up on environmental noise and intensity, it can enable a deaf or hard of hearing person to “feel” when a hazard is approaching. For instance, an approaching car would cause Ontema to vibrate. As a car became closer, and the sound of its engine grew louder, Ontema would vibrate harder and its light would flash faster and brighter.
Its developers are also working on a TV receiver that plugs into a home entertainment system to provide another layer of interaction with TV programs. The idea is to enable Ontema users to feel the on-screen action, providing another layer of interactivity for those who are hard of hearing – ensuring they don’t miss out on incidental ambient noise in a movie or TV show. The same receiver could also be used at festivals, museums or parades to provide similar sensory experiences.
Ontema is primarily an accessibility tool, but the team see no reason why it couldn’t also be used as a general wearable that acts as an alert system or even another means to add immersion for those who aren’t hard of hearing.
A crafty beer revolution
Hands-down the weirdest product on show at this year’s Fujitsu Forum was Serenbler, a reusable cup whose name comes from a portmanteau of “serendipity” and “tumbler”. It sounds bizarre, but the concept of embedding a reusable cup with an e-paper display makes slightly more sense when you realise it’s intended for beer, rather than coffee.
Sponsored by one of Japan’s three major brewers – although Serenbler’s creators wouldn’t disclose which one – the idea is that a connected cup can replace the traditional pint glass. When your beer glass becomes empty or approaches being empty, the e-paper display suggests you refill your beer. It could also suggest alternative drinks if it feels you’ve consumed too many units of alcohol. And, naturally, it’s also an opportunity for an establishment to push food deals and offers directly to each customer.
Obviously, it’s not as worthy as the other society-improving technologies on show at Fujitsu Forum 2018, but it gives a glimpse into where the future of bars, pubs and restaurants may lie. As it becomes harder to make money in the sector, and for brewers to make efficient returns on their product, these embedded advertising opportunities may become a crucial element in a business’ success.