Business / Tech

Gadget maker wants everyday items to have online access

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

A sleek, ¥10,246 leather-clad padlock being marketed by Tokyo-based startup DentsuBlue might look like another extravagant toy for the wealthy — but this one can be used in many different ways and even link itself to the Internet.

The product, to be marketed as the 246 Padlock next year, is among an increasingly popular line of goods incorporating a new concept dubbed the “Internet of Things” or IoT. The concept roughly refers to trend of making all manner of things linkable to the Internet under the assumption that doing so will make life more convenient in a wireless age.

Indeed, life with Internet-capable devices is becoming more futuristic and has been deemed by some as the future of personal computing.

In this future, a home robot can be ordered by smartphone to serve drinks, and owners of “smart houses” will be able to use voice-activated systems to turn on a TV or set the thermostat.

Thanks to advances in mobile technology and cloud computing, the IoT concept of life is coming closer to reality.

The worldwide market for IoT devices is expected to grow from $1.3 trillion in 2013 to $3.04 trillion by 2020, logging 13 percent average annual growth, according to an estimate by U.S.-based IT market research firm International Data Corp. released Nov. 7.

IDC forecasts that more than 30 billion items will be connected to the Internet by 2020, including those previously thought unlikely to be part of the online world.

The IoT movement is also growing in Japan. By 2018, the market is forecast to double to ¥21.1 trillion from ¥11.1 trillion in 2013, with annual growth of 13.7 percent projected each year. IoT devices in the Asia-Pacific region in fact are expected to surpass those in North America by 2020, according to IDC Japan.

The 246 Padlock is part of this trend.

“When I asked myself what kinds of things are still used in a traditional way, I came up with locks and this symbolic padlock shape,” DentsuBlue President and CEO Ikko Yoshiba said.

Funded by advertising giant Dentsu Inc., Yoshiba set up DentsuBlue in October.

Obstacles remain before the IoT concept can become mainstream in Japan, however.

Shin Murakami, board director of the mobile telecommunications firm Y!mobile Corp., told The Japan Times that many Japanese, especially seniors, have qualms about the Internet, where phishing frauds and online shopping scams are rampant. He also said many people in Japan prefer to buy products they can actually touch.

He hopes IoT products can help people overcome such trepidations precisely because they are touchable.

“The best scenario is the Internet will become something like tap water — a social infrastructure that people naturally use without thinking,” Murakami said.

Y!mobile Corp. is a front-runner in promoting IoT in Japan. Affiliated with Internet giant Yahoo Japan Corp., the company, formerly known as Emobile before its merger with PHS phone provider Willcom Inc. in August, has worked to convey “the fun of the Internet to everyone,” as the company’s motto puts it.

To offer people not conversant with digital devices a hands-on experience with IoT products, Murakami opened Internet Park, Y!mobile’s flagship store in Tokyo’s Roppongi entertainment district, in August.

The store displays a wide variety of IoT goods Murakami has personally collected from all over the world, including some that look like toys, such as small robots that can fetch drinks and a device that monitors moisture levels in a planter. He said he hopes to give a wide range of people from gadget fans to families to seniors, an opportunity to experience such items in person to sense whether Internet-capable items can lead to a better future for them.

DentsuBlue IoT project manager Tomohiro Mikami acknowledged the concept may seem dubious to people who are resistant to jumping on the digital bandwagon at a time when hacking is rife and Internet security has been debunked as a myth.

If that barrier can be overcome, (the IoT concept) may potentially spread rapidly,” he said.

To attract people unfamiliar with digital gadgets, Mikami and his team struggled to make the padlock light and fashionable at only 98 grams.

Its functions are also simple. It can be locked and unlocked like a regular padlock, but also contains a smartphone app that allows it be unlocked remotely. Unlike regular padlocks, however, people can supposedly keep an online log of who unlocked it and when.

Mikami left room for users to get creative about how and when to use the digital lock.

“I was surprised to hear a user point out that our product is actually suitable for seniors, because they often struggle to insert a key into the small keyhole on regular padlocks,” Mikami said, adding that he wants to bring IoT products closer to everyone.

He said digital products need to be “adorable” to go mainstream, acknowledging the public’s penchant for all things cute — as exemplified by the puzzling plethora of “yurukyara” regional mascots. People tend to reject “geeky” technologies, he said.

“The complexity of digital products has prevented them from spreading widely. But with the popularity of smartphones, people are now ready to control many things in the real world via the Internet.”

The day will come when IoT devices will really become as common as tap water, Murakami said, noting people eventually will no longer need smartphones to operate the technology.

Murakami predicted that 2015 will be the first year for IoT gadgets to become common among early adopters. He thinks each fan will have at least one IoT product at home and hopes IoT goods will spread and become available to everyone by 2018.

“I hope Japan can build a science fiction-based society that surprises many overseas visitors by 2020 — the year of the Tokyo Olympics,” he said.

Coronavirus banner