CEATEC 2014 Retrospective – On Trend, on Task?

CEATEC 2014 Retrospective – On Trend, on Task? - AkihabaraNews.com

The vague recommendation that she compose “A sorta macro-perspective mini-ethnography, an exploration of CEATEC 2014’s personality, you know, something along those lines...” resulted in a statement much more coherent than the assignment, and we're pleased to present the inaugural contribution from a unique new voice at AkihabaraNews, Phoebe Amoroso.

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You might have already seen this animatronic dinosaur.

This beast was at the centre of CEATEC, or Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies, Japan’s largest IT and electronics exhibition. Held at the football-pitch-sized Makuhari Messe, the sheer scale of the event can be overwhelming. More than 800 (?) companies from all over the world showcase their latest designs, unveil dazzling and revolutionary technologies, and network with (or glare at) other companies.

Yet staring at a green robotic T-rex that roared and clunked around, I was transported back more than two decades, where age four, I had been paralysed with fear by moving, roaring dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. Whilst I can proudly report that I’ve come a long way since my time as a trembling toddler, the flashback was symptomatic of a nagging feeling that followed me around much of CEATEC:

Doesn’t some of this seem a little old?

The trouble,” said my tech consultant companion, “is probably the Internet. There isn’t anything here that I haven’t seen on Reddit at least six months before.”

Like Panasonic’s latest high-tech...offering?

Even without lurking in tech forums, the cinema reaches out to our imaginations with visions of the future. CGI has already shown us the possibilities. Maybe we’re left craving the hyperreal as the everyday realm of the possible becomes just a little bit too mundane. Firms have to try just that even bit harder to impress us.

That can make going to CEATEC with the eyes of a consumer a little alienating, especially if you don’t speak Japanese - English information and guidance was a rarity. Moreover, as you might expect at a trade show, a lot of the really, clever innovative stuff doesn’t come wrapped up as a singing, dancing robot. docomo, for example, was showing off its collaborations with a variety of transnational ICT companies, including Fujitsu and Nokia, into researching frequencies suitable for a 5G network. I have to grudgingly admire them as my home country, the UK, is still suspiciously prodding 4G like a dead jellyfish washed up on the beach.

Yet everyone loves robots and, fortunately, some smart companies had brought them along to flirt with the crowd’s eyeballs. Rows of mildly demonic muRata “cheerleaders” pivoted perfectly on their single ball. There was some kind of mechanical suit that you could strap yourself to and make your Iron Man wet dreams come true (see: Team Skeletonics).

And just to make sure that you knew exactly which country you were in, a creepy, hyper-realistic female robot surveyed an eager audience through lifeless eyes. Hello, Japan.

The crowd-pleaser that really stood out, and which won the Grand Prix and Software categories at this year’s Innovation Awards, was Omron’s ping-pong playing robot. The speed and dexterity with which the robot reacts is astounding, and this is combined with an ability to adapt to its competitors’ level. Watch the video below to see the robot in action (also admire the smoothness with which this excessively full cup of water is transported back and forth).

What I was looking for at CEATEC, however, wasn’t robots: I was scouting for green technology.

It’s no secret that energy supplies in Japan is a topic of continual tension since the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. Energy imports have pushed Japan’s trade deficit to a record high and the government is still struggling to convince the sceptical public that it’s safe to restart the reactors. Japan, of course, is not alone: energy is a global concern.

Bluntly, the revolution or even the WOW! factor wasn’t there, and CEATEC lacked the unified presence of green tech and environmental solutions that I’d hoped for. Yet some companies had clearly engaged with the challenge – or jumped on trend, depending on your level of cynicism.

Everything is “smart” nowadays and, accordingly, CEATEC was full of “smart home” solutions, allowing households to monitor their energy use and reduce their energy costs. This, of course, relies on people actually caring about the cost of their bill or their environmental impact. But people are notoriously apathetic, so it was pleasing to see that companies like muRata were combining these ideas with energy storage and a system that automatically switches to using the solar power when available.

Alps put on a particularly thorough display with their “Environment and Energy Zone,” showcasing the potential for ICT to monitor environmental information in agricultural contexts. Among their range was a small-scale water turbine to generate electricity from irrigation channels. Its actual capability is quite low as it requires an elevation of 10m and a flow of 20 l/s to generate 1kW and the cost is currently prohibitive. Still, it’s baby steps in the right direction towards harvesting energy through things we already do.

Also worth a mention is Sharp’s semi-transparent solar cell windows, seamlessly building solar power generation into households. What’s more, they’ve developed cells that can work from artificial light, albeit at a reduced efficiency rate, which means you can now generate power from your coffee table.

These kinds of developments represented the second thing I was on the look out for: technology that integrates with or improves the structures and systems that we already have in place; technology that wiggles into those little gaps you never even thought about.

It was thus with a fair amount of scepticism that I approached the fitness wearables, and they were seemingly ubiquitous at CEATEC. I’m going to pick on Fitbit, an activity and sleep monitor wristband, mainly because I don’t like the name. For me, it conjures the image of rows and rows of women doing pelvic floor exercises to keep their bits fit. Sorry, Fitbit, but I think I’d rather take a Nike FuelBand.

Wearables like Fitbit tap into our obsession to understand ourselves through data, as if somehow we might discover the meaning of life in the process. It’s like we’re turning ourselves into giant Tamagotchi, monitoring our vital stats. Or maybe we’re giant Pokémon, trying to suss out our weaknesses and strengths, and do our utmost to level up.

Admittedly, fitness wearables play into people’s competitive nature, and the social and gamification aspects are compelling. But there is something about oodles of body stat data that might just make fitness wearables a little...wearing. Will we continue to be excited by checking our heart rate or number of calories burned, or will it become a chore?

My main problem with a lot of the offerings is that sometimes it seems as if we’re trying to bend ourselves to the technology rather than bending the technology to us.

A prime example at CEATEC was Rohm’s Wearable Key Device. This “key” includes activity monitoring if you don’t want a separate fitness band, gesture control for unlocking your device for when touching the screen is too much effort, a UV sensor for the vampires among us, and a metal detector for those times when you lose your keys and find… your fridge?

One thing that stuck with me from CEATEC was a conversation with a representative from Omron, creators of the ping-pong pro. “Our approach,” she told me, “is not to create technology that replaces humans but to create technology that augments human capabilities.”

Looking around CEATEC, the seeds of these ideas are sprouting, but it’s early days. We’re probably only at Level 2, and we’ve got a lot of evolving to do.

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Contributor Phoebe Amoroso is a serial Japanophile, fascinated by the intersection between society and technology. A Brit with a quintessential academic background in geography, media and communications, she divides her time between Japanese studies, journalism, and eating. Her interests include the social psychology of the Internet, technology and everyday life, urban design and planning, sustainability, cities, the Internet of things, cross-cultural studies, and food – lots of glorious food. She likes karate but secretly dreams of being a ninja or a Pokémon master. Or even a ninja Pokémon master.