Today we went to Ginza to test a new system. Ginza is a region in Tokyo with all kinds of fancy stores (read: expensive) with all the big names next to each other, from Chanel to Louis Vuiton. We started out in the underground passage next to the A3 exit where the experiment would begin. Everyone got a PDA with some ridiculous name and a wristband with an RFID reader inside of it. Next, you put on the headphones and the system would guide you to the surface. It immediately went wrong: we walk a lot faster than Japanese people so we ended up in situations like: "Pass left of the termi…" – "Go straight by…" – "Walk up the stairs on the…" – "Turn around and go back to the crossing with the red booth on your right, this time walk up the stairs on the left". Great…
Today we are leaving Tokyo for a while to head out to Tsukuba. Tsukuba is a good 2 hours from Jimbocho and so our day started early with me giving a briefing to the group about JAXA. The latter was because all of us reviewed a company to write a report about and mine was about JAXA. So after we left the hotel with provisions to survive the coming night, we set out for Tsukuba.
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.
Today is my day off. Well not really but I’m sick with a combination of flu and a serious cold. Yesterday I skipped the diner at the cruise ship to prevent throwing up all the way and before that I managed to survive the NHK visit while walking around with a fever.
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. And 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.
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. Even 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today (Sunday) we went to Hiroshima on a culture day. We jumped on the Shinkansen (Nozomi number 5) to Hiroshima from Kyoto. One of the group had a GPS system for cycling which can show the current speed and other statistics and we clocked the train at a top speed of 303 km/h. At that speed we found a smoking booth between two trains. So after we bought some coffee from a nice young lady on board, we checked out the smoking booth. After some hilarious situations in a small booth with 2 cups of coffee and cigarettes (taking sudden corners at 300km/h is dangerous for people in the vicinity with open mugs) we arrived after 1,5 hours at Hiroshima.
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.
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).
Today is Saturday for me and all hell broke loose when my tooth broke off (again). The tooth broke years ago in a fight (which I got pulled into) and it got glued back on which worked great: came of twice since then which is acceptable. However, today we were visiting a temple in Nara (not the the one we slept in but I’ll post that later on) but the biggest wooden temple in the world.
Today we visited Nara again. Last time the weather was crap (rain) and other things were a bit off. This time however, the weather was brilliant: sunny, 12 degrees and we even got a station guard to walk us half-way to NEC. NEC has an awesome building but we weren’t allowed to make pictures. So I didn’t. Only when nobody looked.
Anyway, we had some cool tech demos about robots which interact with humans (think Aibo, think small toy-like gremlin, think way expensive), a door with lcd’s in them (I want one of those) and telecommunication walls with HD video links between different buildings. The lunch was decent, although pretty cold but that is probably because the kitchen chef never made a western meal like that. After the visit, we were greeted by a fleet of taxis out side NEC. Apparently someone noticed we were running late and they had called every cab in Nara to the NEC building. After the drivers had their fun with the fact that we probably are twice their length they brought us to NTT Communications Lab.