Traditional pasteboard rail tickets may soon go the way of Betamax VCRs and telephone rotary dials with the near-nationwide standardization of prepaid IC cards such as JR East’s Suica and Tokyo’s Pasmo from March 23.

These nearly ubiquitous IC cards, which hold up to ¥20,000 worth of “money,” can be used to pay for everything from train fares to items at kiosks and thousands of participating shops. All the complicated calculations, the reading and writing of data, such as deducting the cost of a cross-country train journey or a simple bottle of water, must be done in the blink of an eye, while the card is in contact with the reader, typically for a mere fraction of a second.

This has forced railway companies to completely rethink the way in which passengers enter and exit the rail system.

“Left-handers often complain that using the IC card readers is difficult for them. We had this problem with paper tickets as well, but IC cards present their own set of problems,” explains Yasunori Kiseru, chief engineer at Kandenshi Kenkyujo, an electronics manufacturer based in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture.

“Because left-handers must stretch across to touch the sensor with the card held in their left hands, they often fumble or drop the cards, or fail to make proper contact. In such cases the turnstile flips shut and blocks their passage, causing delays, and inconveniencing right-handed commuters.”

From 2008, Kiseru’s company commenced joint research with the Human Engineering Laboratory at the Tochigi Institute of Technology (TIT) in Utsunomiya, where a team of graduate students working under professor Mogura Tataki sought to eliminate this bias against lefties. The team achieved a breakthrough when one of its taller members suggested mounting the touch panels in the center of the path through which the passenger walks.

“Frankly, at first we thought he was pulling our legs,” Tataki said with a smile. “But he was not suggesting mounting the sensors in the floor, as we had first thought, but in a panel over the passengers’ heads. Through trial-and-error experimentation, we realized this was not only feasible, but worked beautifully.”

After experimenting with different configurations, the team determined that slanted touch panels would afford optimum contact. The IC card can be touched on either the right or left side.

“We positioned the sensor panels obliquely so that the user’s wrists would be turned at the ergonomically ideal angle of 17 degrees from the vertical, so when the card contacts the sensor, it slopes slightly outward at the bottom,” Kiseru demonstrated, his arm extended. “Imagine reaching out and putting your hand on a much taller friend’s shoulder — that’s what it’s like.”

In a nod to Japan’s energy-saving efforts, the new wickets will also be energy self-sufficient, through a floor pad that converts the steps of commuters passing through the barriers into electrical energy.

By mounting the IC card sensors just a bit higher than one might expect, most commuters will be forced to give a little jump to reach them. “Actually, it’s more like a skip than a jump,” Kiseru explained, demonstrating the movement.

Springboards on rubber pads provide additional bounce, allowing a male commuter weighing 70 kg to generate between 210 to 300 milliwatt seconds merely by walking through the wicket. “And even more if he’s carrying a briefcase” said Choyaku Kawazu, the grad student credited with this idea. “Multiply that figure by the hourly weekday average of 2,400 people skipping through the average station gate and you’re talking about quite a bit of energy.”

Kawazu added that the generated electricity used to power the sensors will be stored in lithium-ion batteries “obtained very inexpensively and hardly used at all” from the Boeing 787 fleet.

Naturally, for the elderly and the physically challenged a few conventional barriers will be retained with the new prototype, which has been tentatively named the “Tochi-tobi Guchi,” in acknowledgment of the Tochigi Institute’s contribution to the design.

During field tests at a station in Saitama Prefecture, commuters passing through the new gates were monitored by cameras and two graduate students with counters and electronic stopwatches. In the mornings, both left- and right-handed subjects made first-time contact more than 98 percent of the time, even better than the 96 percent “hit rate” achieved by right-handers using the existing turnstile sensors.

“The biggest problem we’ve found so far is that the number of accurate touches tends to decline progressively after 10:30 p.m. or so. We suppose it was because more of the commuters are returning home after going barhopping,” Kiseru remarked.

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