Japan Blog Study Tour

Mountains and freezing winds

IMG_3033 Today we visited Nikko, a small town a good few hours from Tokyo. We started out using the Shinkansen and then we hopped on a local train to get to the countryside of Japan. If you are recovering from having the flu or some serious cold, I can say it is probably not a good idea to take the train to Nikko: it screeches with every movement and its quite a bumpy ride. After a 40 minute ride which felt like a day while I was trying to suppress the feeling of getting sick again, we finally arrived at Nikko which was even the last station on the line.

Japan Blog Study Tour

NII and cheerleaders

IMG_3013 After an early start we started walking to NII which was supposed to be located at a thirty minute walk but for some reason we standing in front of the NII building after 5 minutes. Great. And ofcourse because we were way too early they weren’t ready to have us yet so we stood waiting in front of the building for 20 minutes or so.IMG_3018  The positive thing about this was that the sun was shining which is helping if you are still feeling a bit shaky and are carrying fever suppressing pain killers around.

Japan Blog Study Tour

Tokyo Denki and NHK

IMG_2977 On our first day in Tokyo we are visiting Tokyo Denki, a joint venture of numerous (previously separate) universities. Even though they still work partially separate they now at least work together. They had some cool demonstrations including a robot that could deploy wireless sensor networks by dropping balls with the electronics in them, including a camera to be able to view the surroundings. They want to use the system in major earthquakes when its critical to get a fast overview of the surroundings and even in situations that are too dangerous for humans (structural hazards etc).

IMG_2968 I don’t remember much else from the presentations as I am coming down with the flu or something and I had a few pain killers in the break to try to keep my focus. The next thing I know the lunch had arrived: they asked Ivo if we wanted a Japanese style or Western style lunch and so they had ordered a huge amount of sandwiches and fruit salads. The lunch was awesome and the sandwiches had a huge variety to suit everyone’s taste. To my surprise the Japanese people seemed to like them as well – making me wonder why Japanese people don’t eat bread more often (and making it easier for us Dutch to find decent food around here).

IMG_2981 After the lunch we headed for NHK – the Japanese BBC. They are also funded by non-commercial sources and apparently exists largely from the money they receive from Japanese households. NHK has a huge video archive with most of it with closed captions.

They working very hard on techniques to harvest this data for future use. One of the cool things we saw was a program that generated a trailer from a random program by using the EPG (electronic program guide) as a guide and the captions to match the extract to. The result is a 30 second trailer summarizing the program. The results were amazing.

IMG_3002 Another use is to index the captions to create a multimedia encyclopedia from the terabytes of video data stored in the NHK data center to be able to search for particular content.

Besides the IT part of the television / media world we also got to experience the next generation of TV: SHV or Super High Vision video is 16 times the resolution of current HD material (so much for my HD ready TV, it looks like a toy next to this stuff).

According to NHK it will be the last 2D media standard as humans are unable to see more details than SHV can show. That, accompanied with the 22.2 surround system (yes, that is twenty-two channels of sound and 2 channels for the subwoofers… So much for my DTS system at home LOL) made it quite an experience to see. We sat a few meters from the cinema sized screen and we could not see any pixels unlike any beamer system I had seen up to then.

IMG_2987 Right now the system is in development and not nearly ready for normal use even though NHK is aspiring to switch to SHV in a few years. The current system uses 3 humongous beamers, insane cooling to keep it all running and uses a few hundred terabyte of storage for a half hour demonstration. In case this all means nothing to you: you can get a  few decent Bentleys for the equipment these people use to store their next generation videos. Did I mention that they work together with Bose to develop the sound system for SHV? All of the speakers and the sound system is custom build for this purpose…. daaaaang ^-^.

Japan Blog Study Tour


IMG_2752 This is the first day we woke up while it was snowing. According to the staff, it usually is cold this time of year but snow is pretty much unheard of. Luckily for us we are traveling quite a while today which means we probably be walking around in the sun rather than the snow.

We walked past ATR and NICT multiple times (they are in the same town as for example Omron, the first company we visited in this study tour) but today we actually get to visit them. IMG_2763And to be honest, these are the ones we have high hopes for.

When we got there we first walked towards ATR as we thought they were located in the same building. After a minute of so, one of the receptionists walked us to the right building one kilometer down the street.

IMG_2767 NICT uses a lot of research from ATR to speed up their own research. One of the cool things we saw was a prototype of the ubiquitous home. In here, the whole home is controlled by a computer (with pressure sensors, RFID readers and camera’s) which turns on the lights, makes sure you don’t forget stuff and records shows you like. Something like HAL2000 but then in 2008.

Another project uses pressure sensors in the floors of the entrance hall to track occupants and determine their intent from just the pressure patterns: is someone waiting, hasty, idling around etc. IMG_2798Even though the idea is cool there is not much to see except for the floor of pressure sensors.

After NICT we walked back to ATR (which we now knew how to find) and we were greeted by Nick Campbell, one of ATR’s big shots. He turned out to be a really nice guy and he told us to follow him into the restaurant for lunch.

Another weird thing about Japan is are the rules regarding presents and such: we had to pay our own lunch because otherwise it could be considered a bribe… We heard that in some cases it would be possible to get a free lunch but that has to be approved by numerous large organizations and it would take months.

IMG_2803 Lunch consisted of a  kind of fish – salmon I believe, soup and rice. I ditched the rice, drank the soup and was then pleasantly surprised to find out the the fish was prepared great. After lunch we moved towards the back where we found a coffee parlor. With a bit of help from a Japanese employee we managed to find the right button on the ticket machine to get a ticket for coffee and some cookies. After we got some fresh made coffee from the lady at the counter we heard we could walk around for a bit because we were early (that was a first) so we decided to walk around on the ATR site.

IMG_2812 When we passed the parking lots we turned the corner and found ourselves next to a huge grass field with some stone barbeques next to a small terrace. This was meant for employees that wanted to have a party at ATR. According to the signs next to it, the party was allowed to continue until 10 PM – some party…

Next we walked by some huge pond with a small forest around it and some benches along the  way – no doubt the place to go if you need some peace and quiet. After we passed that, we emerged from the trees to find a soccer court and a few tennis courts. ATR sure knows how to keep their employees happy.

IMG_2825 We finally walked back to the entrance to find the rest of the group. ATR does research on a wide range of topics including robotics (they have full size humanoids and robot faces with realistic skin) but we came to see ubiquitous technology so we had to skip that section. Mostly.

We got to see the voice recognition and syntheses that ATR build. The computer is a UMPC and the program works within a certain context to make sure the translation is accurate, in this case the topic was travel. The software even copies the intonation of the speaker when it translates.

IMG_2832 Next we got a presentation from Nick Campbell himself and his research on following a conversation with out listening to the words. He found out that we use a certain intonation when we speak to certain people (father, mother, sister, aunt, lover etc) and he created an algorithm that determines the intonation and deducts the softness of the voice. It was pretty cool to see how accurate the software worked.

IMG_2834 ATR also has a group that is working on learning algorithms. They programmed a robotic arm with some stereo camera to learn how to do a certain move. For example we taught the software what the command "stack" means or "move": you simply show the computer what you mean and it can then do the movement, even if the number of blocks differ, their color differ and even if their position is different.

IMG_2856 After the very successful visit to ATR we traveled all the way back to Kyoto for a great dinner in the hotel we were staying at, the Palace Side Hotel. We finally got to eat Western style prepared food. Well mostly Western anyway: the Japanese think its normal to serve the garments (the vegetables and the potato’s) cold. Even with the cold garments, the food was great.

Japan Blog Study Tour

Temples and cold feet

IMG_2409 The next morning was really really cold. Everything besides sleeping quarters is unheated so with temperatures around the freezing point it was a rude awakening (and getting up at 5:30 in the morning is a rough wake up – period). Somehow somebody managed to throw a pillow (filled with grains or something) through one of the paper walls – oops. But we were allowed to take part in the morning ceremony of the temple none the less. The high priest of the temple led the ceremony and afterwards we all got a divine blessing from him (perhaps I should have had him bless my teeth instead of the trip and flight) and we had breakfast. I ditched the misu soup and the rice and went for the fruit salad and tea (yes, shoot me). After a while some monk came in telling us that there was coffee: within seconds the eating hall was deserted.

Japan Blog Study Tour

Ninjas and temples

IMG_2121 Friday was another culture break as we went to Kyoto where a guide would take us on a tour through a ninja house (actually a daimyo inn). Instead of one we guide, we found 3: three female students who are volunteering took us on a tour. One one side we get a guided tour and on the other they can practice their English. The result was pretty amazing: all of them had an almost flawless accent and their English was very good.

IMG_2134 Once in the ninja house, we were told we are not allowed to make pictures with out cameras to protect the building from the flash as its over 400 years old. Any attempt to explain that me and Sebastiaan could take pictures without flash didn’t help. Also you are not allowed to touch anything inside besides the floor and the stairs (yes, really) and we had a pretty grumpy guide who was pretty strict with those rules.

Japan Blog Study Tour

Castles and students

IMG_1757 Today (Wednesday) we had another freaking early start and a decent night sleep thanks to the quick dinner the night before (thanks to the McDonalds, which saves a heck of a lot of time to find a joint that serves food we like). We headed out to Himeji using the Skinkansen (high speed train). After a short ride which had a peak speed of 275km/h, we arrived at Himeji and we walked to the castle.

IMG_1815 The castle is build on a hill / small mountain and the top of the castle is made out of wood (instead of stone like the European ones) and is surrounded by big walls and various courtyards. The entire complex is so large that after 2.5 hours we only saw the courtyards leading up to the castle and the castle itself and nothing of the walls surrounding it (only from a distance).

Japan Blog Study Tour

High and mighty…

IMG_1359 Like I posted a few days back, the 2nd day had a better start than the ending of the previous day. Even though we didn’t sleep much, it still helped a lot. Also, the weather was nice, with a clear sky and temperatures in the sun that made a coat obsolete. IMG_1367After the morning briefing we headed for the diner next door from the hotel. The diner uses a vending machine which has a button for each meal: you insert money, choose the meal you want and give the ticket to one of the staff. After some careful scrutinizing of the menu card I finally found something that looked pretty safe: something with egg and chicken.

As the breakfast took longer than expected, we left the diner 15 minutes late. Because it was a holliday in Japan – National Foundation Day – we headed for the Umeda Sky Building, one of the tallest buildings in Osaka consisting of two towers that are connected at the top where the Floating Garden Observatory is.IMG_1398

Japan Blog Study Tour

Anime music

After all is said and done… well I just had to post some anime music videos. I picked some soundtracks from my favorite shows and found the video clips. (I’m gonna be so broke if I find a music store in Osaka or Tokyo ;-))

For starters, lets begin with Origa. The song is called Rise and is the first opening tune for Ghost In The Shell: the 2nd GIG. Note that I couldn’t find a video clip of this song so this is the opening itself: {flv}demo/Origa_-_Rise{/flv}