International Symposium 1998 TOP
Virtual Sensitivity


Dr.Kenji Nihei and Mr.Nobuo Issiki
(History of the Children Media Committee)

1: Babies Seek Information

It was about 15 years ago that newly born babies were observed to be probing the outer world using their senses. Not only newborns, but fetuses also respond to sound and light and they can also distinguish the taste of amniotic fluid. These are all considered to be important of information for babies. Thus, we can assume that babies begin collecting information while they are still inside their mothers' wombs by using their sensory organs such as sight, hearing, and touch.

Human beings seem to seek, as well as absorb the information surrounding them from the time of their conception, to satisfy their insatiable curiosity. Children show immense curiosity regarding their environment whether it be an object, humans or animals. Children are also the geniuses in turning them into play tools.

What happens if no information is available during infancy? According to the joint study conducted by Nobel prize winners in medicine, Professors Hubbell and Weasel of Harvard Medical School, if a cat's eyes are sewn together for a length of time immediately following its birth, its eyesight is never regained. This points out the importance of information consumed immediately following birth.

2. Merits and Demerits of Information Transmitted from TV

The question "what can television do for children?" has been an ongoing issue for researchers and producers of childrens television programs. These debates and research reflect the various periods and views of children. On December 8 of last year(1997), many children fell ill while watching a TV animation program "Pocket Monster" and were rushed to hospitals. Speculations are that they reacted to intense flashing light and color transmitted from the television. Currently the Ministry of Post & Telecommunications, the Ministry of Health & Welfare and television networks are investigating the exact cause. Information transmitted by using animation techniques is most attractive for children, and the recent development of media technology such as computer graphics (CG) has enabled the use of increasingly exciting and stimulating techniques. No actual research and consequent regulations have been made in Japan on children and media, which has resulted in this unfortunate incident.

Looking back on the history of TV programs for children, up to the beginning of the 1970s, a view that children were cognitively underdeveloped was globally held. Pre-school children, in particular, were thought unable to understand intelligent messages. Therefore, children's programs had centered around singing and story telling.

This trend was overturned by Sesame Street, a popular program which is being aired even today all over the world. Policy-making in the United States at that time was focusing on eradicating poverty under President Johnson and vigorously pushed forward the Head Start Project throughout the country. This program was based on the belief that all children in a democratic society should be able to begin schooling having had similar emotional, cognitive and physical supports and stimulation. It also attempted to prevent children of low-income families from school failure and the possibility of future drop-out.

Children's programs in Japan began to change gradually from the mid-70s as they were also influenced by Sesame Street. Up to that time the program contents and directions used to be determined, roughly speaking, by personal impressions about infants held by producers at NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation). A study group on programs for two year olds consisting of scholars, researchers and producers was launched in order to develop new programs. The study group tried to find out what kind of messages should be or could be sent to children who are watching TV and to develop programs using the formative research technique with producers, scholars of education, psychologists and researchers who actually investigate how children are watching television getting together.

One of the most frequently watched segment among those developed by this group was called "Shiritori Computer". This is a word game played by saying a word that starts with the last syllable of the word given by the previous player, and computer graphics was used to show consecutive images of words. Children then try to tell what the word is as they watch these images. Children who watched the program made assumptions on their own and participated in the game anticipating what would happen next. If such careful attention was being paid to all the children's programs, the Pocket Monster Incident could have been prevented.

3. Intellectual Curiosity of Children Wane as They Grow Older

The insatiable curiosity of infants develops based on the strong ties with their parents, but if the tie is not strong enough, their investigative minds may wither. When the parent is too directive or commanding leaving no room for children to choose by themselves, their intellectual curiosity does not appear to grow.

Life of the Japanese seems to have been steadily improved thanks to the economic growth. Goods abound in our daily life and everyone can readily get information he or she wants. However, we cannot help feeling that there is something missing as we watch our children grow. We should not compare the present with the past or contemplate whether an environment more affluent for children existed then or now. We should attempt to build an environment where children's insatiable intellectual curiosity is all owed to develop continuously.

As is typified by the phrase "we are not afraid to cross the street with a red light if we cross together", the Japanese has built a society focusing on the harmony in a group rather than being individualistic and doing something different from others. This has been hammered into children at home and then at school as they grew up, and then in the society when they became adults. If harmony in a group was emphasized too much to ruin uninhibited intellectual curiosity of children, it may create a grave problem.

In the waves of westernization since the Meiji Era to catch up with and pass the Western world, the school education has functioned as a core to efficiently offer massive information to people. This led to standardized and uniform education to cram children with knowledge. Children were evaluated by how quickly they could memorize rather than by how often they asked questions about a subject.

This situation has worsened today as the competition to enter better schools becomes more severe. Pre-school education emphasizes whatever is useful for admission to a better school and as children go on from primary school to junior high and then senior high schools, their intellectual curiosity of asking a question or being surprised gradually wanes and disappears. However, as they enter the society after university, they are all of a sudden required to be creative and original. Most people find it impossible and unreasonable to cope with this requirement.

4. Establishing the Interdisciplinary "Childrens Media Committee"

Japan is faced by austere challenges to become a model for developing countries and to contribute more to international understanding by developed countries. Children who will support Japan's tomorrow are required to take leadership more than were expected of the adults of today. They will be required to have wisdom, decision making capacity, originality and cooperative spirit adequate for such leaders. We adults must give serious thought to an affluent environment which would generate such capabilities and which would offer emotional experiences and satisfy childrens intellectual curiosity. We feel that the important thing is not to press but to offer such an environment to children.

As children's intellectual curiosities are fully satisfied and as they undergo wonderful experiences of becoming enthusiastic over things, excited and emotionally moved by encounters with the unknown, surprised by wonders of life and nature, and impressed by magnificence of science which analyze these mechanisms, interests in science are roused. Many great scientists are known to have experienced exquisite encounters and moving experiences with science and things unknown in their adolescence. They cherished their childhood dreams and tackled research and studies in science to realize such dreams. Wonders and emotions of childhood left distinctive marks on not only for famous scientists but also ordinary people.

As we approach the end of the 20th century, the "The Childrens Media Committee", established in the summer of 1991, aims to create a new "forum" for children to undergo such experiences. Leading figures of medicine, engineering, computer science, cognitive science, child education, developmental psychology, contemporary art, museum education, etc. gathered together to think of the issues regarding multimedia and children. By focusing on "information" which will become increasingly important in the coming age, the group decided to conduct experiments, investigations and research in order to convert abundant and superficial information into "live information" and to find out what we should do to strike a chord in children's mind, to give them wonders and impress them with joys of discovery

(Case Study Reports)
We have studied the relationship between media and children using both hardware and software in various fields to achieve the purposes discussed above. In this paper, we report on one of our studies, particularly regarding sick children.

(1) Children with sickness: Children are largely characterized by the fact that they are in the process of development. Important factors for their development are communication, learning, experience and physical exercises. By pursuing them fully, their five senses are stimulated and they are moved to become brighter and vivacious. In other words, their quality of life (QOL) is improved. Having sickness will limit their daily life and prolonged hospitalization hinders them from fully enjoying communication, learning, experience and physical exercises, and lowers their QOL.

(2) Is media useful for improving sick children's QOL?
Conventional virtual reality (VR) for children are produced mainly for game centers seeking stimulation, rarely for improving children's QOL. We started with development of software to complement communication, experience, physical exercise, and learning for children in hospital and offered videos through which they can play music and football and arm wrestling with people outside the hospital while remaining in a confined space. They are also able to visit zoos, amusement parks and aquariums, build miniature gardens, attend schools they used to go and ride horses. These attempts allowed children to forget the fact that they were confined in a hospital, which had a impact on them and erased the conventional concept of being in a hospital. This may be one of the possibilities for tomorrows multimedia technology.

(3) Children without sickness: The situation surrounding children today is not necessarily an ideal one. Children with communication skills, experiences, physical exercises and emotions that are more limited than those of sick children are increasing. This may be due to the paucity of their environment, time and spiritual space.

(Future Activities of the Childrens Media Committee)
5. Raising open minded and resilient children
We adults are challenged to prepare an affluent environment which allows continuation and development of emotional experiences and intellectual curiosity nurtured by our senses in childhood. Various attempts and practices are being started. "The Childrens Media Committee" is devoted to the practical research of nurturing the mind for study of science through media from the standpoint of "children's life in the 21st Century is inconceivable without media".

We discussed that the food for children's mind is "information". How can they obtain the food? With the emergence of the computer, the information society has arrived and our life is seemingly full of information, but there are actually fewer opportunities for understanding and mastering information. Children are exposed to information overload, (the food for the mind), and suffer from indigestion. This trend is expected to become more intense in the coming age of multimedia where the multiple channel TVs increase, optical cables are used for telephone lines, and all sorts of media such as broadcasting, communication, publication, etc. become amalgamated with computer.

When time passed less quickly, people were able to examine each and every piece of information carefully. Today, an incident which happens on the other side of the earth reaches us in real time. People watched the American missile offensives during the Iraqi War in their family rooms as if they were watching a computer game. Every kind of media offers massive volumes of information in the present progressive form, which is dispensed readily and disappears from people's mind.

How can children digest all this "information"? "The Childrens Media Committee" decided to examine various problems arising from the interaction of children with media from two aspects in order to seek the answer to this question. The first is the perceptive and cognitive approach: What are the effective methods for presenting interactive information? How do children recognize the media itself? How is information perceived? The second is the basic technical approach: What kind of hardware is suitable for using what kind of information? Which is the most suitable interface?

Lively discussions about virtual reality are being held vigorously and some assert its side effects. They wonder that perhaps children may no longer be able to face reality as the border between the reality and the non-reality is lifted. This poses an important question of how children's recognition process is affected by new media. In order to arrive at an answer, we should continue the basic studies on children's media.

As we continue such research and experiments, we will be able to elucidate what mechanism and environment is best for children to turn this abundance of "information" into something meaningful. We propose a keyword of "relishing Information" and hope to realize a space where children can understand "information" by actually tasting it and a media space leading to new interests and creativeness as their intellectual curiosity is excited by obtaining such information.

Copyright (c) 1998, Kenji Nihei and Nobuo Issiki, all rights reserved.
Permission to reprint on Child Research Net