|

Fujitsu labs in touch, ahead of the curve on the tech road

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Whether in stores, schools or cars, futuristic and convenient technologies made by Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd. are just around the corner.

During a recent visit to the laboratory in Musashi-Nakahara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Fujitsu introduced three technologies under development — a next-generation user interface, a drowsiness gauge and a camera and radar system to assist parking.

Sci-fi moviegoers may recall scenes in which real objects like a table or a wall are used as hologram touch-panel computers.

The coming next-generation interface will be like that, allowing people to use real objects as a computer interface.

“Natural interface, incorporating the natural movements of humans into an interface, has become quite popular. We wanted to go a bit beyond that,” said Takahiro Matsuda, a research manager of Media Processing Systems Laboratories at Fujitsu Laboratories.

In terms of hardware, it is basically a combination of a projector, cameras and a computer.

Fujitsu has created a stand with eaves on top and a projector aimed at them that can reflect images to whatever object the stand is placed on. That projected area on the object becomes a computer interface, as the stand is connected to a computer.

There are also cameras below the eaves that recognize human hand movements.

A person can place a paper document under the eaves and touch portions of the text and slide a finger to highlight a paragraph, just like using a tablet computer.

The interface will recognize the text and turn it into digital data that can be freely moved within the interface.

Images from a travel brochure, for instance, could also be so rendered.

“The point was developing technology that can accurately recognize the touching of actual objects,” Matsuda said, noting this has been the biggest challenge since the laboratories started research and development around 2010.

Fujitsu aims to make the user interface commercially available in fiscal 2014, he said.

“At this point, we are introducing the technology to customers and hearing how it can be used for their businesses,” he said.

Ideas include shop clerks using the technology to give more elaborate presentations to customers, and for schools to further incorporate information and communications technology into their education.

The technology could turn restaurant tables into interfaces that customers would use to place orders.

To reduce traffic accidents, Fujitsu Laboratories is also working on technology capable of detecting drowsiness levels.

“Although traffic accident fatalities and injuries have been decreasing in recent years, the number of accidents has not declined that much, and most accidents are due to human error,” said Yasuhiko Nakano, a research manager at Media Processing Systems Laboratories.

Because drowsy drivers cause accidents, it is hoped the research will help minimize this problem, Nakano said.

To detect drowsiness, users place a sensor on their ear that works with a smartphone and recognizes heartbeats as frequency waves.

When people are wide awake the heartbeat-frequency changes a great deal, but when they get sleepy these fluctuations decline, indicating drowsiness.

If the detector senses that a driver is getting drowsy, it can sound an alarm or trigger the release of an aroma to help keep the driver awake, Nakano said.

Fujitsu plans to introduce this technology to carriers that employ professional drivers, including truck and bus drivers, to monitor their alertness.

“Trucking operations welcome technology that may help reduce accidents,” Nakano said, adding, however, that one hurdle is where to set the drowsiness threshold.

Although an eased heartbeat-frequency level may in general indicate drowsiness, all people are different and one threshold may not fit all, he said.

Therefore it is crucial to collect more data to analyze the trends, Nakano added.

Fujitsu aims to make the product available to professional drivers in two years.

The laboratories are also working on another technology that can be helpful for drivers.

Some newer vehicles have exterior cameras that help drivers see what’s around their cars. This is especially handy when it comes to parking.

But such camera images can distort the distance a vehicle is from other objects, said Masami Mizutani, another research manager at Media Processing Systems Laboratories.

The main cause of the distortion is that the cameras do not recognize distances, he said.

To solve this problem, the laboratories are looking to install laser radars and cameras that can accurately measure distances and incorporate the data into images.

This would allow drivers to have a better gauge of the distances of objects seen in the cameras.

Laser radars mounted at four locations of the vehicle are capable of measuring 70,000 location spots within a range of 170 degrees. The margin of error for the radars is only 2 cm.

Mizutani said the laboratories have been talking to automakers about this technology and they are interested. It is hoped the technology will become available in three to four years.