Sony lab offers a peek into the future

Practical inventions for use in disasters, toys for stimulating the imagination displayed

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

A miniature rotor craft controlled through a head-mounted display and Lego blocks manipulated with a PlayStation controller: These were just a couple of examples of new ideas and creativity on display last week at a two-day open house held by Sony Computer Science Laboratories Inc.

About 30 scientists and researchers working for the lab in Tokyo’s Gotanda district showcased their projects at the open house, which is usually held once every two years.

One eye-catching technology was the Flying Head, a miniature camera-equipped helicopter that sends video to a head-mounted display, which is used to fly it.

“We’ve created this based on an idea of ‘What can we do to make humans fly?’ ” said Jun Rekimoto, deputy director of the laboratory, which marked its 25th anniversary this year.

Rekimoto, professor of applied computer science at the University of Tokyo, and his lab staff came up with the idea of using a head-mounted display to control a copter remotely.

A live image taken by the camera is beamed to the display, giving the wearer a sky-high perspective.

The helicopter is synched to the movements of the display: If the wearer steps forward or ducks, the helicopter flies forward or descends.

Rekimoto said he chose to use the head-mounted display because “we wanted to make people feel like they are becoming a helicopter. . . . You are directly watching the helicopter’s vision.”

The Flying Head has great potential as a useful tool, Rekimoto said. For example, the copters could check on what’s happening in disaster areas difficult for people to reach, Rekimoto said.

The rotor craft, which functions like a helicopter, can fly over such areas unobstructed, unlike tracked robotic vehicles that may not be able to maneuver among large piles of debris.

Yet there are technical issues to overcome, including maintaining a good wireless connection outside, he added.

Rekimoto’s team has successfully controlled the helicopter indoors several floors away, but the outdoors is filled with radio wave interference.

If all technical issues are resolved, Rekimoto said it might be possible for people to remotely fly to places they want to travel to but can’t, such as Mount Everest.

Another research project with great potential was Toy Alive, Lego blocks that can be manipulated remotely through built-in microchips.

Alexis Andre, an associate researcher at the lab, has been working on the project in collaboration with Lego for about a year.

“What we’re trying to do here is to provide a platform” for children to use their imagination, said Andre.

At his booth, Andre demonstrated how the Lego blocks can be moved around with a wireless PlayStation controller.

In one instance, he used blocks to chase others that looked like a car, a plane and a human character. In another, a Lego tree suddenly broke apart as though it had been blown up.

Using red LEDs, he made a house made of Lego blocks look like it was on fire, as panicked characters ran around.

Andre said his creation gives children the chance to invent their own stories, and that because it is neither a toy nor a video game, it could be “a new platform” for kids to play with.

Although popular with children, video games are stories produced by others, and Andre said he wants children to use their own imaginations instead.

Other projects displayed included a project for using solar power and lithium-ion batteries to bring power to areas of Ghana off the grid, a way to facilitate use of smart houses and augmented reality to project 3-D maps of towns.