Asia Business Channel

Special Report - At IFA, Startups Forge Human-Centric Interfaces Between People and Technology

 

A Special Report from the Government of Japan

Brain activity scanners, retinal projectors and even interactive displays made of wood were among new technologies turning heads at Germany’s recent IFA electronics trade show as visitors flocked to see innovations from Japanese startups. Twenty companies showed off products and services developed in Japan, the first partner country for the IFA NEXT 2019 innovation partnership.

The companies exhibiting at the IFA Japan Pavilion included seven chosen from the J-Startup Program, a Japanese government initiative to create successful, cutting-edge Japanese startups operating in the global market. Japanese businesses have been working to come up with solutions for aging populations and other social problems, a goal that dovetails with IFA’s aim of accelerating innovation.

Japan: Underestimated and full of potential

“Outside of Japan, Japan is so underestimated,” IFA Executive Director Jens Heithecker said in an interview on the sidelines of the six-day exhibition, held in September at Messe Berlin.


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IFA Executive Director Jens Heithecker says coinnovation is the key to solving global social problems


“Most people have no clue that even the big brands are suppliers of high-quality components for so many international manufacturers,” Heithecker added. “That’s one side. On the other, when we look at startups in Japan, most people think they are a closed, different culture. That’s not true anymore. They are so international. I have seen so many young entrepreneurs coming from outside Japan, from the U.S. and Europe, joining startups in Japan.

“Japanese engineers and developers have something in common with German ones. They create the best products with attention to detail and then they think they don’t have to do marketing because the product speaks for itself and it will work… If you have a closer look at Japan, and explore, you will find so many surprising things for yourself.”

Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is the Global Innovation Partner for IFA NEXT 2019. Heithecker noted that Keita Nishiyama, director-general of METI’s Commerce and Information Policy Bureau, played an unexpected role at IFA’s Global Press Conference in April this year, both in his capacity as a senior government bureaucrat and by giving a presentation that dispelled notions that Japan is a closed nation of workaholics. Nishiyama has emphasized the rise of a new age of cyber-physical integration, known as Society 5.0, and the ability of Japanese companies to design a new kind of human-machine interface with built-in kindness and consideration for people.


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IFA Executive Director Jens Heithecker (right) discusses innovation with Keita Nishiyama (center), Director-General of
the Commerce & Information Policy Bureau in Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI)


Technology For Every Kind Of User

Several examples of this new approach to our relationship to machines, including products that can help seniors, were on display at the IFA Japan Pavilion. Already on sale in Japan, the XB-01 Brain Activity Sensor is a compact, lightweight measuring device that fits into a headband placed over the user’s forehead. It measures reflections of weak infrared light to gauge blood flow changes in a region of the brain involved with planning and abstract reasoning. The device is designed to help users concentrate, learn and work more effectively, and is based on the notion that brain training can prevent cognitive decline as we age and increase healthy life expectancy.


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Left: NeU President and CEO Kiyoshi Hasegawa / Right: NeU’s wearable XB-01 Brain Activity Sensor measures brain
activity by reflected ultraviolet light


NeU is a joint venture between Tohoku University and Hitachi High-Technologies that was founded in 2017 in Tokyo. At IFA, the firm invited visitors to don the device and then perform relaxation and breathing exercises, followed by a series of timed drills shown on a linked display, such as remembering shapes and colors, counting and selecting numbers in sequence. The NeU software then produced a cognitive fitness score as well as a brain activity score by comparing the results with databases.

“The things that we need for long, healthy lives are speedy minds and memory capacity—if they deteriorate then we can’t work,” says NeU President and CEO Kiyoshi Hasegawa. “Brain training has been shown to have an effect on neural activity, and the compact size of this sensor means people can train with it every day.”

Another Japan Pavilion product that could help seniors is RETISSA Display. It looks like a pair of sunglasses but projects imagery directly onto the retina. Developed by QD Laser, the display emits a low-intensity laser onto a vibrating microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) mirror, and the imagery is bounced off a reflector onto the retina. The product is already on sale in Japan, and a proposed medical-device version for the visually impaired has an integrated camera that lets users see their surroundings.


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Left: Nori Miyauchi, General Manager of Regulatory Affairs at QD Laser. Right: The RETISSA Display projects images
onto the retina


“This is totally different from conventional head-mounted displays because they have screens that require focusing and cause eye fatigue,” says Nori Miyauchi, general manager of regulatory affairs at QD Laser, a quantum dot semiconductor laser company based in Kawasaki City. “This device doesn’t have a screen—your retina is the screen. You don’t need to focus. If you have myopia, hyperopia or astigmatism, it doesn’t matter. You’ll always see a clear image. Also, no matter where you look, the image is always in focus.”

Integrating Tech With Everyday Living

Pixie Dust Technologies, a Tokyo-based business that was selected for the J-Startup program, is also developing products for users with impairments, as well as new ways of channeling sound. At IFA, it showed off its SOUND HUG, a large sphere embedded with a speaker and LEDs that convert sounds into real time vibrations and illuminations, with higher pitches in red and lower in blue. It became available for rent this year, and the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra has used the device to allow hearing-impaired people to enjoy music through haptic and visual stimulation.


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Left: Aiko Kuroda, Director of business development at Pixie Dust Technologies. Right: Pixie Dust Technologies’
SOUND HUG (left) and Holographic Whisper (right) deliver sound in novel ways


The company, which has an alliance with the University of Tsukuba, also exhibited Holographic Whisper, a prototype directional speaker that can deliver sound to a precise location in space by using ultrasonic waves. It can transmit specific sounds to targeted listeners, for instance museum exhibit explanations for various visitor groups in different languages.

“Our company is focused on ‘Digital Nature,’ in other words merging technology with everyday life in a natural way,” says Aiko Kuroda, director of business development at Pixie Dust Technologies. “These are the kinds of approaches we need for the next era of computers to be successful.”

Another exhibitor exploring new ways of communicating information is Kyoto-based mui Lab. The word mui literally means, “leaving things as they are” but the company says it conveys “a natural state of mind.” It was showing off its mui interactive displays made of wood, drawing upon ancient Japanese traditions that combine woodcraft and everyday living spaces. The cloud-connected planks are embedded with speakers and electronics that can display text and graphics with soft, soothing light that glow only when needed. They can be used for everything from checking the time to reading weather forecasts, controlling lighting and thermostats, sending voice mail, and showing notes written by family members to each other. The planks are available globally for preorder, with deliveries expected in early 2020.


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Left: Mui Lab Co-Founder and CTO, Munehiko Sato, pictured at far left with Akiko Moriguchi, mui Lab global marketing
and design strategist


The mui technology can also be used to mark a child’s height on a wooden column as he or she grows. A conceptual family memory archiving system that was exhibited at IFA combines this column with a wooden box that has a cotton-based surface functioning as an interactive display. The idea is to spend less time looking at mobile device screens and more time with family.

“We’re surrounded by too many screens and blinking LEDs in our homes, and they’re always increasing,” says Munehiko Sato, cofounder and CTO of mui Lab. “We wanted to create intimate objects that live with families for decades, not gadgets that become outdated after a year.”

Einstein’s Legacy

For IFA’s Heithecker, the Japan Pavilion companies form a showcase of Japan’s innovative potential. National barriers to international cooperation in fields such as healthcare must be torn down so that “coinnovation” can be harnessed to tackle global problems like aging societies, disaster preparedness and climate change, he says.


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Twenty Japanese companies exhibited new products and services at the Japan Pavilion at this year’s
IFA electronics show in Berlin, Germany


“We see that every society has the same problems, and at the same time we have only national, domestic regulations and laws—it will not work in this new world,” says Heithecker. “Digital technology is one of the best examples of how to get people from different countries to learn from each other and use the solutions they already have.”

“Thinking back to Albert Einstein, who came here in 1930,” Heithecker adds, “he was talking about how radio brings together nations. He had this vision, and that’s the same vision we have with coinnovation—bringing people together instead of separating them. You can see this especially in IFA Next. No matter what nation people are from, it’s only about ideas, and about how we can work and innovate together.”

 

 

 

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