Showcasing Futuristic Japan
A hologram-like cube hovers in mid-air, its corners pulsating balls of light. Pass through its silvery beams and you get the eerie sensation of melting into the 3D virtual object.
In the bowels of Mitsubishi Electric’s advanced research centre on the outskirts of Kyoto, engineers recently demonstrated the prototype “aerial display” to give a sense of what Tokyo may feel like when it hosts the next Summer Olympics in 2020. Imagine Japan’s capital as a hive of futuristic wonders when it welcomes the world in less than four years. Driverless taxis whisking you to the stadium. Robot guides showing you around town. Olympic events experienced in virtual reality. And amid Tokyo’s chaotic sprawl, large-scale 3D projections floating in mid-air.
These 2020 visions are hardly the stuff of fantasy. Corporate Japan – with a strong push from the government – has embarked on a concerted drive to turn such futuristic ideas into reality by the time of the Games. It is all part of Japan’s hopes for the Olympics to open a new chapter of economic dynamism after decades of struggle – much in the way Tokyo’s 1964 Games showed that the country had made a stunning comeback from the ashes of the second world war.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has launched a “Reform 2020” project that sets the Olympics as a benchmark for realising futuristic programmes including “cutting-edge robots", "advanced automatic driving technology" and “ultra-realistic imagery technology”.
Mitsubishi Electric’s aerial display features a panel called a beam-splitter that both passes and deflects light from a projection screen. The divergent rays bounce off a reflective sheet that allows them to converge at the same point – creating a hologram-like object through which the observer can walk.
Researchers are rushing to commercialise the technology by 2020 – aiming for a quantum leap in the size and sophistication of the 3D displays. Mitsubishi envisions ultra-realistic projections not only at eye level but also hovering above a crowd. Meeting a life-size Cristiano Ronaldo floating at the Olympic Stadium or holo-signs guiding you at busy Shinjuku train station are considered realistic objectives. “We could envisage an image floating in the middle of the stadium, replaying a sporting scene,” says Hidetsugu Suginohara, chief researcher of the Mitsubishi Electric division developing the aerial display.
Exiting Shinjuku Station, a visitor may be greeted by the sight of humanoid robots crisscrossing the plaza, assisting tourists. Humanoid tour guides are one of the main technological pushes for the Olympics. The Reform 2020 blueprint highlights robot guides as part of Japan’s plans to impress the world.
Last year, Hitachi gave a glimpse of the future of robotic assistance in Tokyo. Its humanoid EMIEW3 – a three-feet-tall bot with a blinking heart – performed demonstrations as well as real-life tests helping tourists in places such as Haneda Airport.
“Are you in difficulty?” EMIEW said, approaching a confused tourist.
“Where is the tourist information?” the visitor asked.
“Do you mean visitor centre?”
“Please come with me,” EMIEW said, leading the tourist to her destination.
One of EMIEW’s main features is a “remote brain” located in a distant server. Placing the robot under control of a powerful, centralised artificial intelligence system holds intriguing possibilities for interactivity. Cameras at the other end of the airport terminal could capture a lost tourist, and feed the information to the server – which would instruct EMIEW to seek the tourist out. Other robots would be plugged into the centralised brain, allowing them to work together. One demonstration showed EMIEW handing off the task of escorting a tourist to another robot. The EMIEW network could also be linked to the visitor’s smartphone or tablet, allowing the device to continue offering guidance (once the robot has called it a night.) Another form of robotic guidance may come in driverless taxis taking you to the Olympic Stadium. In January, Nissan announced a partnership with internet company DeNA to develop a commercial driverless transport platform for Tokyo by 2020 – with tests starting this year.
And if you cannot make it to the stadium, it may be possible to watch Olympic events in virtual reality. At the headquarters of Japan’s 360Channel, an immersive broadcasting specialist, the Tokyo skyline gave way to a basketball game seen in 360-degrees through a VR headset. Such technology is expected to improve exponentially by the 2020 Games.
Most of Japan’s 2020 technologies have practical utility – some are just meant to dazzle. ALE, a research start-up, plans to deploy a satellite that will unleash an artificial meteor shower – to fill the skies during the Olympic opening ceremony. Expect the Tokyo 2020 Games to blaze a trail of technological exploits.