Tomorrow’s technology

Businesses smell a winner with virtual reality breakthroughs.

Virtual reality has long taken people to new and exciting places. Now Japanese companies are taking virtual reality new and exciting places — by digitizing the senses of touch and smell.

These and other pioneering technologies are on display at Ceatec Japan 2015, a four-day international IT and electronics trade fair that kicked off Wednesday in the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo.

Companies are using the event to showcase their products and prototypes. The technologies on display today may be improving — maybe even saving — lives tomorrow.

Japanese company Kyocera is displaying a breath sensor, developed in partnership with Japan’s National Institute of Materials Science and others, that could one day turn smartphones into cancer detectors. This requires digitizing odor characteristics into data recognizable by humans. Someday, odor sensors may be sensitive enough to recognize the difference between domestic and imported meat.

Kyocera’s tiny sensor is designed to be built into mobile devices. The developers claim the sensor is 100 times more sensitive than existing products. Masahiro Inagaki, head of Kyocera’s research and development division, said the partners aims to commercialize the technology in about two years.

Currently, a small module equipped with the sensor analyzes an odor and sends the data to the cloud via smartphone. The data is then analyzed with help of the big data technology from Japanese electronics maker NEC.

Meanwhile, Alps Electric is showcasing its haptic devices in the fair. Haptic technology is what enables gadgets to provide physical feedback to users, such as the vibrations a smartphone can make when an email is received. The feedback, created using tiny motor, can be hard, soft or any number of sensations.

The company began developing such devices about a year ago, motivated by rapid advances in haptic technologies related to such senses as sight and hearing, including those found in head-mounted displays and with high-resolution audio.

“To achieve a more accurate reality in the virtual world, a combination of devices for each of the five senses, including touch, is indispensable,” said Yasuji Hagiwara, who heads development of haptic devices at Alps Electric.

It used to be that virtual reality technology focused on reproducing human senses that were easier to digitize, such as sight and sound. Adding smell, touch and taste to the virtual realm is expected to narrow the gap between the real and the virtual worlds.

Achieving a more realistic virtual world could bring many benefits. It means robots, for example, would be able to move almost like humans or animals, sports and trips could be simulated with startling realism, and IT assistance in medicine and nursing could be elevated to more sophisticated levels.

Smart chopsticks

A prototype of “smart chopsticks” developed by Chinese search engine provider Baidu is on display at the booth of Japanese company TDK. A sensor attached to the end of a chopstick measures the salt, sugar or fat content of the food it touches. TDK provides the tiny wireless module fitted inside the utensil. The module send the food data to smartphones or other devices. The idea is to help people make healthier food choices.

Japanese travel agency Kinki Nippon Tourist may not seem like the type of company that would attend a gathering like Ceatec, yet it is participating in the fair for the first time this year. The company is showcasing a new service designed to be used in conjunction with special glasses that display various images that tourists can see while visiting sightseeing spots. A person viewing a historic sight in Tokyo, for example, might be able to see older versions overlaid on top of it through the special eyewear.

Kinki Nippon general manager Munehide Yasuoka said the company is participating in the event in the hope of finding other businesses to collaborate with. He said that ever since the glasses service was announced, inquiries from IT companies have been rolling in.

Elsewhere at the fair, at a booth shared by Oki Electric Industry, NEC and other companies, an advanced communication system targeting telecommuters is on display. The system is designed to eliminate unnecessary background noises and send only the voices of those speaking. It can separate the target sound from unwanted noises with excellent accuracy based on the direction, frequency and other characteristics of the sound.

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