Conversations with my Shower and other Friendly Japanese Machines
Akihabara News is pleased to present a feature contribution from Jordan Yerman, a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. While we pride ourselves on delivering news from the streets, conventions, and tech figures accessible only to those who call Japan home, we also value the fresh, unique, and thoughtful observations of a first-time visitor. We think you will, too.
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My shower talked to me. I couldn’t always understand what she was saying (her voice told me she’s a she), but I knew when she was annoyed with me. If I tried to adjust the water temperature without first activating the boiler, Ms. Shower got very cross indeed. Now and then I caught myself muttering a quick “すみません” (sumimasen, “sorry”) before performing the task to her satisfaction. Only then could I bathe in peace.
I visited Japan to attend the International Robot Exhibition (iREX), where those who deal in future things show off their wares to would-be buyers and an increasingly curious public. I was expecting a sci-fi wonderland, with tomorrow’s robot overlords greeting us in polite yet condescending tones. Instead, I saw that tomorrow was today. The instant I cleared customs at Narita International Airport, I stepped into a world where people and their creations live as neighbors. Appliances have voices. Trains have faces. Peer-to-peer chat-rabbits are peaking on E.
Automation doesn’t necessarily have lightbulbs for eyes and pincers for hands; a robot doesn’t even need a body. My Suica card is part of a massive automated tool: its face is that of a cheerful-but-busy penguin, always on the go, just like Tokyo’s millions upon millions of commuters. Charging my Suica became “feeding the penguin,” and I stopped getting annoyed that I could only feed it with cash.
(Suica’s integration with Pasmo is indicated by a joyful robot-penguin dance: a sweeping convergence at which one cannot help but smile.)
Those faces help Tokyo embrace automation and change in a way that my current home city of Vancouver does not. Canada’s Pacific Rim gateway is introducing a transit-card system that’s being met with skepticism, if not outright scorn. We’re about to give ourselves a remarkably powerful tool, yet even the creators don't seem to realize its full potential. It’s funny, because our SkyTrain service is already robotic; there are no drivers, so kids and grown-ups can sit at the very front of the train and pretend to drive.
There are several reasons for this reticence to embrace a new way of commuting, but unfamiliarity plays a big part. While beta testing the Compass card, I was bombarded with questions about how the dang thing worked, as if nobody from Vancouver had been to cities such as Tokyo or Kyoto or Hong Kong or London in the last ten years, nor known anyone who has. (I’d argue that, based on the weird omissions in the system, neither had any of our transit execs, but that’s a different story for a different day.)
Exacerbating this was the fact that Compass has no face, and therefore no personality.
@translink Also, since it's too late to call it "BearFare", can we at least get a Compass product with that name? W/ pic of commuting bear?— jordan yerman (@jordanyerman) September 13, 2013
I was not joking; just trying to help. A card depicting a cuddly-yet-professional bear, maybe carrying a card with her own image on it. Recursive, fuzzy, with claws. You’d want to tap it against a fare-gate.
Visiting Japan only confirmed that initial thought: a user should love the tools she uses every day. Why not build a modicum of joy into the system? Going from Adachi down to Koto via three different metro lines, I commuted across Tokyo to get to iREX, and some of the trains greeted me with open arms.
(EDITORS' NOTE: That Jordan doesn’t read Japanese, and at the time didn’t know that this sign is actually reminding riders to “Be wary of the doors!”, in our opinion, in fact rather strengthens his position!)
When you commute via transit, you inject yourself into a city’s bloodstream. On some level, you need reassurance that the urban body is not rejecting you. You need that reassurance, even if it comes from within; you are indeed but a cell in Tokyo’s plasma.
While constantly fussing over whether or not it’s an “international city,” Vancouver should consider what such a city feels like: Kita-Senju, my nearest JR train station, moves more people per day than Toronto’s, Montreal’s, Calgary’s, and Vancouver’s international airports combined. Shinjuku Station alone moves the equivalent of Metro Vancouver’s entire population every day.
Will Vancouver ever get that big? Hell no, but our transit stations are also tiny in comparison, and they’re less tolerant of crowds. To see the benefits of automating one’s commute, just picture how Tokyo would (cease to) function if everyone needed to screw around with paper tickets. It’s not just scale, but scalability.
Late one warm Tokyo night, I stopped at a Lawson’s convenience store to buy an ice-cream bar that had been lovingly made by a robot, its logo etched in by laser. Zap, wrap, ship. You know what? Those robots make a fine ice-cream bar. And, my morning routine involved a can of warm coffee from those vending machines you find on nearly every street. Eventually Japan’s millions of vending machines, which are already networked, will be able to communicate more articulately. They’ll tell their human attendants when they’re nearly empty, and when not to bother swinging by. Maybe they’ll gossip about your usage habits. Two Pocari Sweats before noon: big night last night, huh?
A journey to Kyoto introduced me to more automated companions. Ms. Fridge, probably a distant relative of Ms. Shower, spoke to me each morning. Whatever she was saying was beyond the grasp of my laughable Japanese skills. Still, I envisioned an ideal future: me in a small-yet-efficient apartment (all those years in New York and London have instilled in me a strange fondness for small spaces), surrounded by talking appliances. Like if Ridley Scott directed a Disney movie.
The Internet of Things is already here, and soon it will be more visible in daily life. I’ll indeed talk to my fridge and my shower like I talk to my plants. Couldn’t I just talk to my silent shower and dumb fridge as they are? Nah, they have no semblance of life. At least my plants breathe, and at least they thrive when exposed to the music of Nina Simone.
We humans, we recognize that which is lifelike; we recognize faces, we identify with them. Daniel Simon, who designed vehicles for VW and Lamborghini, described in Cosmic Motors how we reject auto designs whose grilles don’t have facial features. It’s true. Do you think we’d love the VW Beetle if it didn’t have such kind, trusting eyes? Would we not feel more at home among all our creations if we built them to look more friendly?
The best part of travel is that you get to report back and bring what you found into your daily life. It’s not about turning your nose up at what you encounter when you return home, but about seeing the potential for change, for growth. It’s like discovering a new color. You don’t want an entirely orange wardrobe, but come on, orange scarves are fantastic!
Leaving Japan was difficult, but I know I’ll be back. Unari-Kun, the mascot for the city of Narita, seemed to tell me so. Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
Why can’t it be both?
Jordan Yerman is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, by way of London and New York. He previously worked as an actor, which means he was also a proofreader, model, technical consultant, HR trainer, sign-placer, sales director, crate stacker, bartender, photographer, real estate broker, and even an exhibit at the Bronx Museum. You can currently find him as the City Affairs and Entertainment Editor for the Vancouver Observer.