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KDDI sending futuristic technologies to a screen near you

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

While technology continues to brings us new and unexpected ways to make our lives more convenient, it is difficult to predict how much further it will evolve and the impact it will have on the world.

A recent tour through KDDI R&D Laboratories Inc., however, provided a glimmer of the shape of things to come.

The telecom giant’s R&D arm is exploring technologies ranging from imaging technologies offering sports fans more immersive viewing experiences to more advanced ways for smartphones to connect with other gadgets. It is also experimenting with augmented reality and next-generation optical fibers with higher data capacities.

Here are some details on technological developments we may soon see:

Free-viewpoint imaging

Some sports fans have often dreamed of being able to watch games from the players’ viewpoint, but this would require the players to mount cameras on their helmets or uniforms and replace or recharge the batteries frequently.

KDDI R&D is developing a technology called free-viewpoint imaging that could achieve a similar experience without all that hassle.

“This is research that aims to go beyond 3-D. We are pursuing this to be able to make viewers feel as if they were in the same position as the players,” said Hiroshi Sanko, a research engineer in KDDI’s Ultra-Realistic Communications Laboratory.

“The technology allows people to change viewpoints freely, wherever they want.”

Sanko showed how it works in a soccer game.

Although the games themselves were shot with just one camera fixed at single angle to provide an overall view, the videos based on them used free-viewpoint technology to show the action from various perspectives, including right in front of the players.

This was done by analyzing images recorded by the camera and digitally replicating those that were not.

Free-viewpoint imaging does this by guessing how the unrecorded areas look and filling them as if they were taken by another camera.

This makes it possible to show things from a player’s perspective, allowing for a more immersive viewing experience.

This technology is already in use on TV, allowing soccer commentators to explain in more detail how goals were scored. But Sanko said the technology still needs to be improved because it cannot be used on a real-time basis yet: The images take about 30 minutes to process.

He said he hopes to make real-time free-viewpoint imaging available by the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Multidevice systems

Another aspect of smartphone technology KDDI R&D is working on is widespread connectivity. It wants the gadgets to be able to link to TVs, car navigation systems and other devices so it can act as a sort of master controller.

This would be enabled by a voice-based “assistant” represented by an on-screen avatar, programmed to execute voice commands for manipulating other devices.

“Our aim is to control multiple devices through a unified user interface, and we are using a talking user interface,” said Ryosuke Sumitomo of the User Interface Laboratory.

Why a talking interface?

Sumitomo said that when people ask others to do something, they usually do it verbally. This means a voice-based interface will feel more natural to the user.

Since other voice-based services like Apple’s Siri and NTT Docomo’s Shabette Concier agent are already out there, KDDI is taking a different tack by focusing on connectivity.

In a recent demonstration, the engineers coaxed their panda avatar into turning on a TV, selecting a travel program, looking up destinations mentioned on the program, and booking a driving trip based on those destinations.

The smartphone of the future will also be used in cars to connect with the internal electronics systems to, for example, extract the booked driving plan from the TV show and automatically navigate to the desired destination.

The avatar will also remember people’s interests and behavioral patterns and serve as a kind of virtual secretary that can make use of that information.

For instance, if you want to go on a weekend trip, the assistant will not only remember the plan, but also suggest potential accommodations and even make a reservation, said Sumitomo.

He also said KDDI hopes to eventually expand the options for control devices to include manipulation of air conditioners and audio systems through this interface.

Sumitomo said the service might be ready for the market in half a year or so, noting that one of the biggest hurdles will be getting people into the habit of bossing around their smartphones.

Augmented reality

Thanks to smartphones and tablet computers, augmented reality, or AR, has become more popular recently.

KDDI believes AR will see wider use because “glasses-type” devices such as Google Glass are expected to grow in the future.

AR is a technology that enables people to see virtually created images by viewing certain scenes or spots through mobile devices’ cameras.

“(To use AR services) people have to hold up their phones and look through the cameras, which is an action not everyone is willing to do. But if people wear glasses-type devices, they will be looking at everything through them. When that time comes, AR will rapidly become popular,” Haruhisa Kato, the R&D manager of KDDI’s Software Integration Laboratory, predicted.

KDDI has been promoting AR for a few years now and come up with a number of services.

For instance, it has provided an AR service called Catalog Camera with Nissen Co., a catalog-based retailer, that lets smartphones recognize the images of items on every page of its catalogs.

Once they are recognized, information about them, such as reviews and whether to buy them pop up on screen, giving the user a mix of the physical catalog and virtual contents to enhance the viewing experience.

KDDI also has an AR service that can recognize moving images.

Let’s say people are watching a music program on TV and want more information on a song they like. Aiming the smartphone camera toward the TV allows it to recognize the singer and display the related products offered by Amazon.com so they can buy them.

One potential use Kato sees is AR manuals.

For example, if someone is attempting to conduct server maintenance for the first time, he will probably have no idea what to do. But if the complete instruction process can be viewed in augmented reality, the person has a better chance of completing the task.

Multicore optical fiber

The evolution of the Internet and digital gadgets has made it possible to do things like watch high-resolution videos, take pictures and share them immediately. But behind the scenes, a huge amount of data is being transmitted around the world daily, and this is only going to grow in the future.

“We need to prepare firm backbone infrastructure to cope with the increasing amount of data in the future,” said Koki Takeshima, an associate research engineer with Photonic Transport Network Laboratory.

Optical fiber cables are a crucial part of the Internet’s infrastructure. Along with Furukawa Electric Co., KDDI R&D has been working on a new type of fiber capable of sending many times more data than current ones can.

Optical fibers are strands as thin as a human hair consisting of two layers: a quartz glass core in the center and a protective cover.

The core, which is highly refractive, carries light rays that transmit data by continuously reflecting inside of it.

Currently, optical fibers have just one core in each that can transmit the same amount of data as eight Blu-ray discs per second.

Furukawa Electric and KDDI are creating fibers with multiple cores, which would allow companies to multiply the amount of data transmitted.

But hurdles remain. The cores interfere with each other because, although they are refractive, they still leak small amounts of light that can interfere with data in other cores.

According to Takeshima, this interference reduces the distance the data can travel, making it difficult to have several cores side by side in a fiber sending data over long distances.

Furukawa Electric and KDDI have successfully created fibers containing seven cores that can transmit the volume of 351 Blu-ray discs at a speed of 7,300 km per second.

Takeshima said it is still years away from the multicore optical fibers becoming commercially available.

Advances in Technology, which reports on new technologies under development expected to hit the market in the near future,  is published on the second Monday of each month.