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High-tech Japan jumps on wearable device bandwagon

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Japanese firms are jumping into the race to manufacture a new generation of wearable devices that will link people more intimately with the Internet as they grow more dependent on gadgets to manage their lives.

NTT Corp. and Toray Industries Inc. will soon release shirts that can monitor people’s heart rates and take electrocardiograms, while Sony Corp. will push “life-logging” wristbands that digitally record and store data on their daily activities. Smaller firms and startups are also entering the fray.

Manufacturers say they believe the market for wearable devices, jolted by Google Inc.’s privacy-threatening Google Glass spectacles, will grow into a big one amid reports that Apple Inc. is plotting its foray into the market.

“Before we began this project, we’d had a firm belief that we can provide a Sony product physically closer to users and provide new user experiences,” said Shusuke Miyazawa, senior manager of UX portfolio and product planning at Sony Mobile Communications. The struggling electronics giant released the SmartBand overseas in March and has scheduled the domestic launch for this month.

Unlike smartphones, which have become repositories of intimate information for many users but remain separated from the body, the SmartBand can stay on one’s wrist around the clock, he said.

Why does Sony think we’ll want to wear wristbands?

Miyazawa said the purpose of the device is to enable people to engage in life-logging to make them more aware of their lifestyles and make better choices, he said. The silicon-covered gadget has a 6-gram “core” that records people’s activities in numerical terms, such as calories burned, steps taken and hours slept. It can also track where you’ve walked and run through a smartphone app called Lifelog.

Once installed, the app can track how many hours you’ve surfed the Internet, listened to music or how many pictures you’ve taken. This gives people insight into their own activities so they can plan for the future, Sony says.

“By looking at your own lifelog, you can see what you did at this time. This might give you some hints on your future activities and you might think ‘I’ll do something like this next time,’ ” Miyazawa said.

For instance, some people may realize after perusing their data on the app that they need more sleep, a healthier diet, or more play time with their children. This might induce them to reduce their Web-surfing hours.

NTT and Toray are taking a different tack on this concept with a device modeled on clothing rather than accessories.

The telecommunications giant and major maker of synthetic fibers have teamed up on a new clothing material dubbed “hitoe” for “human intelligence to expand,” that can measure people’s heart rates and take electrocardiograms. The result is a shirt that doubles as a wearable device.

The hitoe material is made from superthin Toray nanofibers that have been coated with a highly conductive polymer made by NTT. The materials allow the fibers to pick up bioelectric signals.

The shirt transmits heart rate and electrocardiogram data to smartphones via a small detachable transmitter placed on the shoulder area of the shirt, which is designed to be worn snugly to touch the skin.

Although the wires are incorporated, the shirt is designed to prevent short-circuiting and is even washable, said Hiroshi Koizumi, head of the innovative life-care devices research group at NTT Microsystem Integration Laboratories.

He said the main task now for NTT and Toray is to differentiate their products from others in the emerging market.

“(Whether that be) arm bands, necklaces, glasses or head-mounted devices, competition is getting tougher for wearable devices to be worn on every possible part of the human body,” he said.

“Shirts are something that people use in their daily lives, so we think a shirt-type (device) is what we can make a difference with.”

NTT Docomo Inc. is expected to release its hitoe clothing lineup this year. While details aren’t clear yet, Koizumi said the shirts will probably cost around $50 to $150 each.

Koizumi said it is likely hitoe shirts will initially be used in gyms and other sports-related settings to check one’s heart rate and that the data will be storable using “cloud” or other Internet-based services. This would allow people to tailor their workout programs or show it to doctors.

Meanwhile, Tokyo-based Moff Inc. is garnering a lot of attention — especially from overseas investors — for a toy of the same name.

The Moff, a wristband gadget equipped with acceleration sensors and gyros, detects childrens’ arm movements and translates them as sounds, such as swooshing swords, guns or guitars, allowing them to add special effects to imaginary sword fights or wizarding fantasies.

“The concept of the smart toy is for children to be able to turn every movement and everything they hold into toys,” said Moff CEO Akinori Takahagi.

The Moff, designed to be used with a smartphone, can be used in so many ways that kids will not easily tire of it, Takahagi said, adding that the toy’s contents will be updated and diversified.

Another advantage, he said, is that it offers kids a healthier alternative to video games, smartphones and tablet computers, which have much of the populace preoccupied with staring at small screens for long times.

“After all, kids’ play needs physical activities, face-to-face communication and creativity, but staring at screens restricts these elements,” said Takahagi, adding that Moff will have them using their bodies and imaginations.

Takahagi said that the product stoked the interest of many visitors at the South By Southwest tech expo in the United States in March.

While the company did not actually set out to create a wearable toy in the beginning, it evolved into one naturally, he said.

“When we develop products, we look at issues and needs . . . the wearable form turned out to be the best to solve the issues and needs,” Takahagi said.

Moff raised $80,000 on Kickstarter, the world’s largest crowdfunding platform for creative projects, and sold all 1,700 units.

Takahagi said that although the timing is still unclear, Moff is expected to hit stores sometime this year for a price of around ¥5,000, adding that he hopes to sell 1 million units in three years.

This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in coming years.

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