Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Only in Japan: The Best Technologies You Can't Buy

True mobile TV. Connected cars. Personal robots. The coolest new gadgets and services are still found in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Just a few years ago Japan's lead in all things digital was easy to see. Japanese consumers could buy new domestic gadgets from companies like Sony, Toshiba, and Panasonic, often a year or two before they hit the market in other countries. But now things have changed. With gadgets increasingly coming out at the same time around the world, it's no longer the hardware that makes something cool, but what you can do with it.

[Note: To see some of the technology and services described here in action, watch our video, "Made in Japan: Future Tech Today."]

Mobile Digital TV

Take OneSeg, Japan's mobile digital TV system. The entire electronics industry, TV broadcasters, and the government all agreed on a single broadcasting standard, eliminating the technical competition that's holding back such services in the United States and Europe.

The result is a popular service that features all the regular terrestrial channels at no cost. Already, 14 million cell phones with the service have been sold, and the sight of people watching TV is becoming more common on trains and in cafes across Japan.

The latest phones also allow you to record TV shows. And if you're in a public space but forgot to bring your headphones, it's no problem. A couple of button presses brings up the subtitles so you can enjoy the show with the volume turned down. In addition, a companion data service provides information about the current show, promotions from the broadcaster, and, often, a link to the TV station's mobile Internet home page.

Mobile Wallet Service

A customer uses her cell phone as a so-called mobile wallet.

Something else that's popular in cell phones these days is the "Osaifu keitai," the mobile wallet service. Phones have smart cards embedded inside, and these cards let you add applications like electronic money, your commuter pass, an airline mileage card, or a credit card just by downloading some software.

The strength of Japan's mobile wallet system is that the industry has settled on a single smart card, Sony's Felica. Once a person's phone has this hardware, he or she can add more functionality with software.

To use a cell phone as a credit card, pass it over a reader.

NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest cellular carrier, gives all its customers an electronic credit card application called DCMX Mini. It has a 10,000-yen ($94) credit limit, and charges appear on the phone bill. Big spenders can apply for more credit and use it just like a regular credit card. All you have to do is bring your phone within an inch of the reader and the transaction can be completed.

Electronic money--something that was tried many times but failed during the dot-com bubble--is now becoming very popular, thanks to "Osaifu keitai."

Of the electronic money systems in Japan, Edy from BitWallet is the market leader, accepted in more than 71,000 convenience stores, bookshops, and coffee chains, and at vending machines. More than 37 million cards and cell phones that support Edy are on the market, and the network handles close to a million transactions per day on average.

Connected Cars

In Japan, car navigation systems have been a must-have accessory in automobiles for years. Streets in cities like Tokyo often don't have names, so a navigation system can really save you time. But the latest systems, offered by companies like Nissan, come with something extra.

Hook your navigation system to your cell phone, and you have a connection through which you can get the latest road and traffic data. The navigation system already knows where the nearest gas station is, but with the network link it can also tell you where the cheapest station is, thanks to daily updates on gas prices.

When you're driving, the phone can connect you to an operator who will help you on your journey and even remotely reprogram your navigation system so that you never have to take your hands off the wheel.

About 10 percent of streets are covered with sensors that provide information on traffic. Nissan is experimenting with a new service that collects data about the roads you've driven and the speeds you've achieved, and feeds it to a central computer that adds the information to the traffic database for a more complete picture of jams.

Round View Monitor car safety system--click for full-size image.

High-tech is also being employed in car safety systems like the Round View Monitor. The video from four cameras around the vehicle is processed and brought together into a single image so that you get the illusion of seeing your car from above. It makes backing into tight spaces really easy and is a big-step beyond the single cameras now found on some large cars and trucks.

Warning of the Big One

One area that's taken very seriously by people in Japan is earthquakes and disaster prevention. The problem is, you never know when a quake could strike, right? Well, not necessarily.

A new warning system has just gone into operation that seeks to quickly detect the weak but fast-moving primary waves from a quake and use them to estimate when the slower-moving but destructive secondary waves will hit.

The system won't help people living at the epicenter of an earthquake, since both kinds of waves arrive virtually simultaneously. But in the event of a major quake, warnings of anywhere from a few seconds to up to a minute can be supplied almost instantaneously.

That's enough time to halt trains and bring factory equipment to an emergency stop, and for homeowners to switch off the gas. Most deaths in the Kobe quake of 1995 were from fires that started after the quake, so preventing flameups is important.


Honda's Asimo.

No discussion of cool tech in Japan would be complete without robots. Japanese researchers are leading the world in robot technology, and humanoid bots like Honda's Asimo are especially impressive.

The latest version of Asimo can serve drinks on a tray and has gained the ability to work intelligently with other Asimo robots in the vicinity to get jobs done faster. Two of the robots have spent most of January working at Honda's Tokyo offices, bringing tea or coffee to guests--and almost certainly entertaining the visitors at the same time.

Rival car-maker Toyota has a clutch of robots including one unveiled in December that plays the violin. (It follows a trumpet-playing robot created a year earlier, so perhaps a robot orchestra is in the making?) The company also has Robina, which is intended to serve as a guide in a public space. Toyota put it into use last year at a public hall in Japan and expects robots like Robina will be commercially realistic in the middle of the next decade.

Taking on a much more serious role is Twendy One, a home-help robot developed by Tokyo's Waseda University. It can do many of the basic tasks that a frail person may need help with, such as assisting people out of bed and serving up toast and drinks.

The robot is still under development but could have a bright future. Japan's population is aging fast--already, 22 percent of people are over 65--and the birth rate is slowing. That likely means a future shortage of workers. It's one of the reasons money is being poured into robot technology in this already technology-saturated nation.


Flash Goes Mobile

Opera's latest browser tries to improve the mobile Internet experience with Flash.

Web to go: A new mobile browser has been launched that can display full Flash media content. This makes it possible for users to view far more of the Web on a mobile phone than they could previously.
Credit: Opera

No matter how much money you spend on a cell phone, the Web you see on its small screen isn't quite the same as the one you view on a laptop. Some features often can't run on mobile-phone Web browsers. But the latest version of Opera Mobile could bring more of the Web to your mobile world. Capable of displaying full Flash media content, Opera Mobile version 9.5 makes it possible to use cell phones and handheld computers to view online animations and movies.

Stripped-down versions of the Web have been offered to mobile users in the past. But these have been widely viewed as flops, says Jon von Tetzchner, CEO of Opera Software, based in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. "There is only one Web, and that's what the end user wants," he says.

Recently, there have been improvements in the design of mobile browsers and their user interfaces in an effort to deliver a more complete Web-browsing experience via mobile devices. But even the swanky browser in Apple's iPhone doesn't support Flash, which puts a limit on the content that users can access with the device.

"A full version of Flash inside the browser makes it possible for users to view the normal versions of video-based websites like YouTube or DailyMotion," says Ian Fogg, research director with London-based analyst firm Jupiter Research.

Some phones offer a lightweight version, called Flash Lite--which is how iPhone users are able to access YouTube--but it has reduced sound and video quality, and only a small minority of devices offer it.

Opera Software was spun out of the Norwegian telecom company Telenor in 1995 and is famed for concentrating almost exclusively on mobile browsing. In addition to offering Flash, the company claims that its latest version can run 2.5 times faster than Microsoft's mobile browser. "Speed is our focus," says von Tetzchner. It is something that the company is very proud of, and it's largely due to optimizing the code so that it runs more efficiently on the limited processing resources of a mobile device, he says.

Users of the new browser will also find tabbed browsing (which allows the user to open multiple Web pages at the same time without launching multiple browser windows) and additional mobile features, such as the ability to easily send a Web link to someone as a text message. "There are a lot of improvements," says von Tetzchner. But it's still not the full Web, because there are still applications that Opera does not support, such as Windows Media. But eventually, it will all be supported, von Tetzchner says.

Despite the advantages of Opera Mobile, the company faces significant competition. Historically, Opera's main revenues have come from device manufacturers such as Nokia and Sony Ericsson, which offer the browser on their phones as preinstalled software. "But this model of supplying to the device markets is coming under pressure," says Fogg.

Increasingly, companies like Nokia are turning to open source engines, such as WebKit--the engine behind the browser on Nokia's N-Series devices and iPhones. Similarly, Google's Android platform has been heralded as the software that will bring the "desktop" experience to the mobile Web user, when it eventually comes. But von Tetzchner is pragmatic about it. "There's always going to be competition," he says.

In the meantime, having Flash on your phone may not be all it's cracked up to be. It may give you access to your favorite video websites, but only if the phone's processor and hardware are fast enough to cope. "Often they are not," says Fogg. "This may be one reason that the iPhone does not yet have Flash support."


The Next Generation of iPhone Hacks

Apple's plan to release a software kit that lets people create legitimate add-ons for the iPhone could make the device appeal to an even wider audience.

Virtual rock star: An iPhone owner plays a virtual guitar. Shinya Kasatani developed software called pocketguitar that lets a person play a guitar by pressing and strumming the phone’s touch screen. Apple has not approved pocketguitar, like many other third-party applications made for the iPhone. However, this month the company is planning to release a software development kit that will allow developers to make legitimate applications.
Credit: Shinya Kasatani
See how the virtual guitar works.

In today's cell-phone market, the iPhone stands out as the shining example of what a handheld device should have: a sleek design, easy-to-use software, and an intuitive interface. But the day Apple released it, geeks found the phone lacking, and they went to work to make their own software for it. These hackers have been crafting clever add-ons that range from instant access to a Blockbuster Online DVD queue to a pocket guitar that takes advantage of the touch screen. In addition, people have found ways to unlock the iPhone from AT&T, so that it can work on other cellular-phone networks.

All of these hacks, however, are done without Apple's blessing or technical support. This month, Apple is expected to release a software development kit (SDK) that will allow programmers to write legitimate software for the phone. This will enable developers to make more reliable software, and it will let the average iPhone owner easily download new programs without needing to follow arduous online instructions from blogs. And importantly, an SDK will likely spawn a new world of applications--possibly even business software--that could extend the reach of the iPhone beyond a user base of four million, as announced in January. "When you have a device like the iPhone that can attract so many people, you also have enterprise developers who want to use that interface," says Mike McGuire, an analyst for Gartner, a market research firm. He says that an SDK will lead to commercial applications for the business sector, "and that's where the real money is."

The average iPhone owner uses the handheld as Apple intended, updating the software and installing media via iTunes. "By default, the only way to get anything on the iPhone is by using iTunes," says Jerry Jones, a developer who has made an iPhone widget that accesses a user's Blockbuster movie queue, as well as a program that lets people adjust the phone's shortcuts so that a double click of the home key launches different applications than Apple's default. But if you want to add these kinds of illegitimate files to your iPhone, you must jump through some technical hoops. "Truthfully, it's not for the faint of heart," Jones says. "If you're not a technology geek, it's not super simple."

Still, there is a large community of people who are hacking their iPhones. One of the most popular programs is a game called Labyrinth that lets a user roll a virtual marble through a maze by tilting the phone (the game accesses the built-in accelerometer). Labyrinth has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, Jones says. Comparatively, his Blockbuster application, which targets a niche market, has been downloaded about 56,000 times. Although these numbers don't indicate how many people have hacked their phone (some people might have downloaded the software more than once to test it, for example), they show that the number of people interested in such software isn't trivial.

One hack that has garnered YouTube notoriety turns an iPhone into a guitar. Shinya Kasatani, who wrote the software, says that it is easy to use for people familiar with a real guitar: the phone's screen is turned into a virtual fret board on which a person can press and pluck. "It's basically a software-based synthesizer with a guitar user interface," Kasatani says. "The audio sample of a guitar string is loaded from a file and stretched to the desired frequency when playing." Since there wasn't an SDK, Kasatani says, he struggled with understanding the intricacies of the iPhone's built-in software. It was difficult to adjust the volume of the sound output and detect the multitouch input without a trial-and-error approach. "We, the developers, definitely need the official SDK and [programming] documentation to build stable applications," he says.

When Apple releases its SDK, more applications like this could become available, just as they are on PCs and Macs today. However, details on the upcoming SDK are scant, and McGuire guesses that Apple won't open much of the functionality of the phone. "I suspect that it's not going to be a wide open SDK," he says. Programmers might have access to certain layers of the phone's underlying software, such as the instructions that allow widgets to access the Internet, but Apple may keep the instructions for accessing the accelerometer, for example, under wraps. "Apple likes to keep things locked down," McGuire says.

He adds that the control is essential to ensuring that the iPhone works well for most of the people most of the time. In addition, Apple's control is important for ensuring software stability and security--two important criteria if the phone is to be used in the business setting. "I get the impression that [Apple] wants to make [the iPhone] somewhat corporate friendly," McGuire says. "I think you're going to see a lot of focus on pulling developers in to make form-based applications"--the kind used in a sales environment, for example. He says that he suspects Apple will treat third-party software the same way that it approves iPod accessories: by requiring vendors to register with Apple to acquire a badge noting Apple's approval. In this way, Apple could maintain some control over the quality of outside applications, which could help make them more secure.

Regardless of the access the SDK provides to programmers, and the safety precautions available for certified third-party programs, the hacking community will continue to innovate around the iPhone. "Even without the official SDK," says Kasatani, "it's much more attractive than Windows Mobile." The Mac operating system and user interface are more fun to use, he says, and the multitouch display makes it especially interesting to work with.


Higher-Capacity Memory

A new type of memory could soon be available to device makers.

Sharp memory: Ultrasharp silicon tips like this one, which is just 10 nanometers wide, are the core of a new memory technology that could soon provide an alternative to flash.
Credit: Nanochip

An alternative to the flash memory that stores and retrieves data with arrays of microscopic probes could soon be on the market. Nanochip, a company based in Fremont, CA, has recently raised $14 million to complete work on prototypes that it hopes to ship to electronics device makers for evaluation next year.

Nanochip's technology offers advantages to flash memory, both in terms of the amount of data that can be stored and the cost per memory chip, says Gordon Knight, the company's CEO. The first prototypes will store about 100 gigabytes, he says--more than the tens of gigabytes stored on flash memory cards today. Eventually, the devices could store terabytes' worth of data, he says. That's likely out of the reach of flash-type memory, says Stefan Lai, formerly the director of flash memory technology at Intel and now a scientific advisor to Nanochip.

In flash memory, information is stored using specialized transistors, each of which is addressed by a grid of conducting wires. The Nanochip technology, in contrast, stores information by writing data to a thin-film material using an array of microscopic cantilevers, each with an extremely sharp tip. The size of each bit will be 15 nanometers in the first devices, but it could theoretically be as small as just a couple of nanometers.

Nanochip's array-based memory provides an alternative to both flash memory and hard drives. In addition to storing more data than flash, it will be cheaper and can be about as fast, Knight says. What's more, it could last longer than flash. Compared with hard drives, the manufacturing processes used will make Nanochip's devices more economical for small portable electronics, Lai says. The company's memory devices would also be more rugged than hard drives and run virtually silently.

The idea of using microscopically sharp tips to store data is not new. In the late 1990s, IBM demonstrated its Millipede technology, which used arrays of a thousand such tips to write and read bits. (See "Bugged about the Future of Magnetic Storage?") The Millipede program is still active at IBM but so far hasn't produced a commercial memory chip. Nanochip uses a similar approach.

However, while IBM's Millipede uses a polymer material, with data stored by heating and indenting the material with the ultrasharp tip, Nanochip uses a material that can be written electronically: applying a voltage through the tip changes the electronic state of the material at the point of contact. That state can later be read using a weaker voltage. Knight says that the electronic process is faster than a thermal process.

A remaining challenge is engineering a complete chip with thousands of cantilevers. The arrays will need to be mounted on a stage that can be moved, using electrostatic forces, over the storage material and combined with electronics that make it possible to control each tip separately. Part of the challenge will be writing the algorithms for controlling the device to optimize how to store data using the moving stage, says William King, professor of mechanical science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. (King was part of the Millipede team at IBM and is a scientific advisor to Nanochip.) In both hard drives and flash memory, he says, bits can be accessed sequentially. But in this system, to take advantage of the parallel arrays of tips, methods of storing and retrieving thousands of bits at once will need to be developed.

"It's a big challenge, but it's something I believe can be done," Lai says. "And if you solve the problems, then you have a whole new memory technology that's available."