5 Sept 2019
Autonomous Vehicle Tech and IoT Prove Star Turns at Tokyo IT Week
Driverless cars, as well as the safety concerns related to such self-determinising technology, preoccupied many at Japan's leading information technology expo, while the Internet of Things seldom failed to feature on most stands.
The most recent edition of Japan IT Week proved a great opportunity to get a handle on a number of new trends set to reshape the information technology sector. Among the most significant of these was the increasingly central role accorded automation, artificial intelligence, miniaturisation, the Internet of Things (IoT) and the ever more complex utilisation of a wide range of data.
Another notable change was that several exhibitors were showcasing ideas and concepts that had yet to fully evolve into products. In many ways, this could be taken as indicative of just how dynamic this sector is right now.
Of particular note was Avnet, a major US-based distributor of electronic components and "embedded solutions", which had an undeniably lively and well-attended stand. This year it was focusing on Autonomous Guided Vehicle (AGV) technology, with an in-situ demonstration model highlighting the speedy real-time response of its system and its use of LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distance.
Outlining the intrinsic benefits of its technology, Market Development Director James Lau said: "Compared to our competitors, our system takes up less space, uses less power and integrates everything into one device. As to how quickly it responds, as soon you put your hand anywhere near it, detects it straight away."
While, at present, autonomous vehicles are restricted to use in warehouses and other controlled environments, many at the event were openly predicting much wider deployment sooner rather than later. Lau, however, believes there is still some way to go before we reach that point.
Expanding upon this, he said: "We are still quite a distance from the product stage. Essentially, what we do, though, is to provide a platform that other companies can then take to the next stage. Overall, I'd say we help companies get 60-70% towards a market-ready product – then they go the last mile and add whatever 'secret sauce' they bring to the party to deliver something saleable."
Despite the upbeat tone of many related exhibitors, the arrival of AGV and similar semi-independent systems has sounded alarm bells in some quarters, with many believing that such technology may well be the cause of a high-number casualties before it approaches anything like perfection. Inevitably, this too has been reinvented as a business opportunity.
Among the many aiming to capitalise on such concerns was Seoul-headquartered Suntech, which was looking to promote its wearable sensor system – Keepus (as in "keep us safe"). Outlining its application and benefits, Senior Researcher Jun Young Yoon said: "Basically, it has been designed to be worn in factories, warehouses and other potentially hazardous environments as a way of monitoring worker safety and ensuring a rapid response to any accidents. We offer it in two options – one that fits on a helmet and one that attaches to a belt."
While both versions incorporate a GPS system, the helmet-mounted variant – retailing at about US$800 – also comes with a camera. As an added bonus – or even a primary attraction for employers – it also allows workers' movement to be tracked.
Overall, wearable devices with a similar data-harvesting capability were widely on show. For its part, Mitsufuji, a Tokyo-headquartered high-tech textile specialist, had on offer Hamon, customised smart-wear that uses electrodes and cloud applications to collect and analyse biometric data – including ECG, EMG, breathing rate, temperature, and humidity levels – from wearers for health and fitness evaluation.
In light of such innovations, it could easily be asserted that the increasing integration of technology with individual lifestyles is creating an Internet of People (IoP) alongside the already well-rooted IoT. While the world may not be quite ready for the widespread deployment of the former, IoT was pretty much ubiquitous across the showfloor.
A major contributor to its ever-rising penetration has been recent enhancements to the range of available small, self-powered, wireless devices. At the forefront of such advances was EnOcean, a California-based manufacturer, which had on offer a wide range of such systems, including sensors, switches and a number of smart-building installations.
Clearly evangelical about the future prospects of such devices, Kasuyoshi Itagaki, the company's Vice-chairman for Asia, said: "By 2025, a lot of these devices will be connected to the internet, with the ongoing challenge being finding ways to power them. While wiring is one solution, it's not always practical and seldom eco-friendly.
"Our solution, however, involves harnessing a range of energy-harvesting techniques and low-powered radio signals in order create wireless and battery-free solutions. This also entails lower installation and maintenance costs."
Along with solar panels, the company's devices utilise inertial energy harvesting, an emerging technology that "scavenges" energy from human movement. A number of the company's other devices exploit the temperature differences resulting from a building's heating system in order to function.
Acknowledging, the rise and rise of IoT, Hidemi Nomura, a Senior Marketing Communications Representative with Avnet, said: "Several years ago, it was just the latest buzz-phrase and no one really knew what it meant. Now, though, it's everywhere. According to IDC [a Massachusetts-headquartered specialist in technology-related market intelligence], Japan will see a 15% per annum rise in IoT utilisation rates until at least 2023."
The speed with which new technologies and new companies can transform the business landscape was also underlined by Royole, a Shenzhen-headquartered manufacturer of flexible display screens and smart devices, making its debut at the event. Explaining the factors leading to its 5,700km round-trip to Tokyo, Sales and Marketing Director Alex Hu said: "We were founded about six years ago by a couple of Stanford graduates and we now have three offices – one in Silicon Valley, one in Hong Kong and one in Shenzhen. From the very beginning, we focused on display screen technology and, last year, we started to mass-produce smartphone display screens.
"At present, we are number one in two important ways – at just 1mm thick, we produce the world's thinnest display screens, as well as being the manufacturer of the first truly foldable mobile phone. This allows our handsets to feature a screen similar in size to a tablet, while you can still put it in your pocket and use it anywhere."
Japan IT Week 2019 took place from 10-12 April and from 8-10 May. Both instalments were held at Tokyo Big Sight.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo