The Solo Theater

Thinking inside the box: Cardboard entertainment, privacy cubicles find place in small Japanese homes

Manufacturers are thinking outside the box to offer stressed-out consumers a personal sanctuary in Japan’s notoriously cramped homes.

According to 2013 government statistics, the average size of a Japanese house is 94.4 sq. meters, compared to 157.2 sq. meters for the United States (2011 figures), 100.1 sq. meters for France (2006 figures) and 99 sq. meters for Germany (2006 figures).

With personal space at such a premium, manufacturers are increasingly finding a market for products that allow users to retreat into a private world, free from outside noise and interference.

One such product is Solo Theater, produced by Tokyo-based design company Lucy Alter Design and set to go on sale at the start of next month.

Solo Theater is essentially a cardboard box with a compartment in the lid to house an iPad or smartphone. The idea is for the user to lie down facing upward with the box placed over his or her head, creating an environment of darkness and solitude in which to watch videos and clips on the device.

“People on the Internet had been making private movie theaters out of cardboard, and we were trying the same thing,” Lucy Alter Design Creative Director Satoshi Aoyagi told The Japan Times at the company’s headquarters in Shibuya Ward.

“But it was tricky and took time to make, and light kept coming into the box. So we tried to make something that was convenient and easy for people to use, and that was the start of it.”

Solo Theater was funded through crowdfunding website Makuake — achieving almost six times its target figure — and is set to retail for ¥3,600.

The company has already taken over 300 orders after gaining popularity on the Internet, and Aoyagi believes the nature of Japanese home life gives the product a deeper meaning.

“There is a slight cultural aspect to it,” he said. “Japanese homes have less space compared to those in other countries. People want to have their own space. I’m married, and rather than have my wife being conscious of me all the time while she’s watching TV, being able to enjoy a movie in one’s own space is something that I think fits the Japanese way of life.”

He added, “People have lots of things nowadays, and I think more and more people would like to make more quality time for themselves. One way they can do that is by watching movies in an environment that enriches the experience. This is a good match for that.”

Another product already on the market is Danbocchi, a personal cubicle made from cardboard, billed as soundproof, which debuted in February 2014.

The basic Danbocchi unit is a booth 164 cm high, 110 cm deep and 80 cm wide with a shelf table, comfortably big enough to fit one seated adult. It retails for ¥59,800.

Danbocchi, produced by Namco Bandai Group subsidiary company Vibe Inc., was originally conceived as a home karaoke studio. According to Vibe Technical Producer Mizuki Fujiyama, however, subsequent customers have provided their own interpretations of its use.

“Originally we made Joysound home karaoke software, and we decided we wanted something interesting to use at events,” Fujiyama said. “We thought it would be interesting to sing inside a big cardboard box, so we made one to use at exhibitions. That proved to be very popular and a lot of customers told us that they wanted to buy one, so we decided to start selling them.”

He said, “It was originally intended for karaoke, but people use it for other things, too, like watching videos, reading and playing games. There are also people who just want to hide away and sit somewhere quiet.”

Vibe gave Danbocchi units and monitors to 10 prize-winners in a collaborative campaign with Joysound at the end of 2013, then ran their reviews on the product’s website.

“I entered this campaign because I wanted my own time and space,” wrote one prize-winner. “I often go alone to karaoke to relieve stress, but my in-laws don’t understand why I go alone. They suspect I’m being unfaithful. That just gives me even more stress.

“My luck was in and I was chosen (for the prize), so now it looks like I won’t have to go out and I can work off my stress inside the Danbocchi!”

Another wrote: “I think it’s designed for people making things with their voices, but I would really recommend it to people who want to quietly get on with some work or concentrate on a movie. People who don’t want to intrude on anyone else and have their own personal space should buy this.”

Fujiyama is hopeful of widening the product’s reach, having already surpassed his expectations with 1,500 units sold so far.

“We released it for sale over the Internet, so the bulk of our customers are young,” he said. “But as the product becomes more and more well-known, we’re expecting older people to buy them, too.

“We’re aiming to sell them in Asia, and first we are thinking about South Korea and showcasing the product at exhibitions there. If there is demand, then we’ll sell them in America and Europe, but first of all we think there will be greater demand in places with a similar environment to Japan.”

Solo Theater’s creators are also considering overseas expansion, and hope their product can attract more than just the Internet-savvy 20s to 30s male demographic currently placing the bulk of orders.

“Enjoying time on your own and watching movies is not something particular to men or women,” said Aoyagi. “You can see lots of people watching sites like YouTube and Hulu on the train, including older people. We’d like them to enjoy our product, too.”

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