• Chunichi Shimbun

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To cope with the accelerated aging of the nation’s population, Nagoya University is working to develop futuristic vehicles.

At the Institute of Innovation for Future Society, which was established last year at the university in Chikusa Ward, the school’s researchers are collaborating with engineers from private companies to create new products.

Based in Aichi Prefecture, which has long been a driving force of Japan’s manufacturing industry, they hope to once again take on the challenge of creating new products.

A prototype Smartchair, a computer-controlled chair jointly developed by the university and Panasonic Corp., was unveiled in August at a trade show hosted by the government-funded Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST).

“You seem to be slightly lacking concentration today. Please be careful when you walk.”

As an electronic voice comes from a machine attached to the chair, itslowly tilts forward to make it easier for the user to stand up.

The developers say the concept of the Smartchair is to support users inconspicuously while constantly monitoring them. Ultra-sensitive sensors are embedded in the back and armrest that measure the user’s brain waves, pulse and breathing. It can also detect changes in blood flow from the user’s fingertips and determine the level of tiredness by calculating the concentration of oxygen in the blood.

Nagoya University researchers developed the sensor and Panasonic engineers are working to apply the technology into a viable product. “We believe that 10 years from now, people will be living in smart houses that make residents healthier,” said Eiji Ohno, a Panasonic official who is working at Nagoya University as a specially appointed professor.

The university’s National Innovation Complex, where the institute is based, also houses research labs of other manufacturers, including Toyota Motor Corp. and Toshiba Corp.

Supported by the central government and JST, projects pursued at the complex are aimed at developing new necessary future technology, as well as linking the university’s technologies and skills with private companies to create new products.

The projects include improved automated driving technology, which is already partially capable of highway driving, so cars can detect dangers and intervene in driving on regular roads.

The project’s goal is to maintain, or even increase, the chances for elderly people to drive, researchers say.

While it is technologically possible to predict dangers based on the position of pedestrians, for example, researchers are afraid that any sudden braking or swerving via automatic driving might confuse drivers.

To determine the best way for robots to provide support, the institute is creating a database of the behavioral characteristics of elderly drivers.

“This kind of research is hard for one company to conduct only by itself, because unlike projects such as improving engine specs, we need to take the social system into consideration as well,” said visiting professor and project leader from Toyota Kenji Esaki.

“Until now, (the) business-academia partnership has typically been conducted between one academic researcher and a company, but what we have realized here is organizational collaboration,” said professor Shigeaki Zaima, director of the institute.

The university has sent some 100 staffers to the institute to deal with intellectual property issues and other tasks, with the intention of turning their research into marketable products.

The university hopes to benefit from the partnerships also by strengthening its position as the center of research in automobile-related technology.

“I hope our university becomes the leading research center in the world (in this field),” said university President Seiichi Matsuo.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Sept. 22.

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