A Quick Overview of Present Technology in Japan - Papers & Essays



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A Quick Overview of Present Technology in Japan

Telecommunications in Japan Today
More and more, we are seeing many students working overnight in front of desktop computers during finals season at Keio University's Shonan Fujisawa campus. What accounts for this situation? Some people argue that students should use their own computers for long-distance telecommunications connections. Making a connection from home, however, costs money. With extensive use, the fees can soar into the hundreds of thousands of yen.

Another difficulty that presents itself when making network connections from home is that in most cases, residential telephone circuits are slow and have a low capacity. At universities, on the other hand, the circuits are fast and efficient. Moreover, charges are included in students' tuition fees, so all use is free.

NTT (Nippon Telephone and Telegraph) recently launched a service called telehodai(unlimited phone time), whereby for a fixed price, people can use their phone line for as long as they wish between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. A major problem, however, is that the service results in a circuit "rush hour," and in fact, users are often unable to use the overcrowded lines.

Mobile Networking
In order to carry out mobile networking, three conditions must be met. First, machines must be miniaturized for portability. Second, conditions must be right for receiving radio waves. Even in the newer buildings in Tokyo, there are areas where they cannot be received--for example, on floors below street level. Recently PHS antennas have finally been installed in a number of subway stations. A more extensive infrastructure of this kind is needed for mobile networking truly to be possible "anywhere."

Currently, PHS phones use radio waves from ground facilities; but in the future, the waves will come from satellites. Today, there are only about 150 such satellites, but it is estimated that by the year, 2002 the number will have increased to 1,200. With nearly ten times more satellites, the technology will benefit people in not only developed, but also in developing countries and remote regions of the world.

The third condition is related to electricity. The use of desktop computers requires that all electricity come from a wall socket. Notebook computers are powered by batteries for portability, but the user must always be aware of the power supply, and keep a recharging schedule and spare batteries. Of course, a great deal of progress is being made to reduce energy consumption. The new semiconductors cut electricity use by about 80 percent; IBM non-aluminum copper circuits, by about 50 percent. Such innovations increase the life of a battery from one hour to five or even ten hours.

Experiment of "Hybrid Mail"
In Japan today, experiments are under way to combine the web with more traditional communications systems. One such experiment is "hybrid mail"-- e-mail delivered by the postal service. This project, called, "Post office of the 21st century," was organized about three years. Young people who are familiar with the web often comment that in the future, postal services will be obsolete. This is a commonly held view that in the transition period during which only a limited number of people can use the Internet, the hundred million who cannot, will suffer inconvenience. However, it is believed that before long, everyone will be using the Internet.

The problem that arises is that in the period before Internet use is universal, the elderly and others will become information underdogs. So an experiment is being carried out in Japan to enable these "information underdogs" to receive the benefits of technology. It promises to greatly reduce the gap between those who use the Internet and those who do not.

The hybrid mail service, connects the Internet and the national postal service. For example, a student with Internet and e-mail access may want to send a message to his or her parents, who do not own a computer. The student can send an e-mail to the post office near the parents' home, where it is then printed out and sent to the parents as regular mail. This system allows people living anywhere in Japan to receive e-mail.

The only, yet significant, drawback of this system is the price. Postage for a regular domestic letter is 80 yen, but the charge for hybrid mail is 110 yen. Students might as well simply put the letter in an envelope and take it to the post office themselves. Many students send a great deal of e-mail each day, however, and for them it would be much easier to send it out as hybrid mail. If the price becomes equal to or even less than that of regular mail, there will certainly be an increase in users.

As explained above, hybrid mail combines a traditional system with the web,bringing together "network" and "footwork" to create a new type of social equality. This is one of the positive possibilities of a mobile networking system.

The spread of Internet technology will also be a great benefit to those who unexpectedly become "information underdogs" through circumstances such as hospitalization. Internet shopping, for example, is becoming more and more convenient; and in the near future we may see the advent of a "virtual window" which would allow a patient to see friends even outside visiting hours. Such services would enable patients to lead a more normal lifestyle, which is so important to their emotional well-being. In addition, the technology for inputting information into a computer through speech has recently become available, opening up new possibilities for those who have difficulty using a keyboard.

The Adaptability of Children to New Technologies (Experiment at the Multi-Media Family Camp)
What is Multi-Media Family Camp?
Many older people have trouble getting used to new technologies, and ideas like hybrid mail can help bridge this gap. But what about children? We conducted a workshop to assess children's adaptability to new machines and systems.

In 1996, fifteen children came from Hiroshima to Tokyo for a four-day event called Joyful Multi-Media Family Camp. Previously the children had tried out the hybrid mail system, and at this event they showed a quick mastery of the Color Zaurus portable computer which had just been released by Sharp. The following year we held the same type of event, called Multi-Media Camp '97, in which the University of Tokyo and Keio University were involved in its facilitation. Forty people--20 children and 20 parents--gathered from all over Japan, and about 50 university students helped them learn about multimedia in a hands-on workshop. During the orientation, the children walked around with portable computers, and by just playing around with these machines, they learned all of the functions.

Power Zaurus
The Power Zaurus went on the market in July 1997. The machine is small enough to put in a handbag; features a digital camera; and can access the Internet when connected to a PHS phone.

The children were given these machines for the four days of the event, and mastered them very quickly--usually in just a day or so. Even the Keio University students who were familiar with computers took as much or more time to master its use. In fact, in some cases the University students learned from the children. The children in the fifth and sixth grade, had difficulty understanding the instruction manual; so instead they consulted with one another, and thus made rapid progress. Because children are so adaptable, it follows that they should start learning early. Instead of teaching facts and theories in textbooks and then putting them into practice, it seems better to let children learn naturally, as described above.

"Tama-Pitch": A Tamagotchi can "visit" another Tamagotchi electronically.
Children love games. It is very difficult to teach children about PHS telecommunications, but the system is quite easy for them to understand if it is presented as a game. During the Multi-Media Camp, we used a game called "Tama-Pitch," in which a "Tamagotchi" toy is installed in a normal PHS.

The children who came to the camp were from different areas of the country,so two weeks before the camp started, we borrowed 25 Tama-Pitches from Bandai and sent one to each child. Within a day, the children had started to contact one another.

In the game, the children raise the Tamagotchi as if it were a pet. For instance, if the Tamagotchi gets sick, the child must take care of it or it will die. Through this game, the children came to understand the PHS telecommunications system within the two-week period.

The Use of the Internet
This year, we have also started to make full use of the Internet for the Multi-Media Camp. From the planning stage on, we used the Internet to publicize all of the information about the camp, from the details of the program to applications. The home page was uploaded at the beginning of July and was accessed by many people. Using the web, everyone involved kept an eye on the progress of the plans and cooperated in the event's production. The participants were able to reach agreements thanks to information shared through e-mail exchanged by the students. All of these records have been saved.

Children learn new technologies through play
At the Multi-Media Family Camp, when they connected the Power Zaurus mobile computer to the PHS, they easily understood, with no explanation, that the content was the same. It is very difficult to teach skills if there is no specific goal, but children learn almost automatically if they are learning in order to play. The children of the future, or the "Net Generation," will have complete command of what is "mobile"--including both "network" and "footwork." Children may appear to be information underdogs, but this is not the case. They have tremendous learning potential, and in the right environment they can master new skills extremely quickly. One necessary condition is that the environment be enjoyable.

Cellular and PHS phones: Spread of Mobility
As of August 1997, 32 million cellular and PHS phones had been sold in Japan. The number has been increasing by about a million per month. This is a huge number, considering the fact that there are about 60 million conventional telephones in Japan. The number of mobile phones is now over half that of conventional phones, and steadily growing--by over ten million a year. This means we can expect changes in lifestyles, particularly those of young people. For example, a decreasing number of students own home telephones, which indicates that the concept of mobile telecommunications is becoming well established. Since January 1997, in fact, the number of conventional phones has decreased by 50,000 per month. At this rate, the numbers will soon be reversed, and mobile phones will become the principal telecommunication tools. Conventional phones will still exist, but they will be of secondary importance.

In developing countries, particularly those in Asia, there are fewer conventional phones and more cellular phones. In China--a leading computer power, after Japan, and expected to become number one in the near future--Internet connections are increasing rapidly as well. From these facts we can conclude that mobility will be the main force of the future, and that, with the miniaturization of personal computers, the desktop-oriented environment will be replaced by a mobile environment of portable computers.

Mr. Allan Kay's vision and the Internet
Allan Kay, a key figure in the creation of the Internet and an advocate of today's personal computers, came to Japan in May of 1997 to participate in the International Multimedia Symposium. On that occasion, he said: "At first, computers went through an 'institutional' period. In other words, large computers were installed in large companies, government offices, and universities. This was the period of what is called the mainframes. However, with innovations in technology, computers moved into a second period, the 'personal' period. The typical personal computer, with a mouse, keyboard, and monitor, appeared. This type of computer is presently in its golden age. What is expected in the 21st century is the 'intimate' period." Simply stated, this means mobile. To illustrate this idea, Mr. Kay used the image of a child using a computer in the woods or in the middle of a town.

Graduate School Course with the Internet
We have used the same method in the graduate school course "Infrastructure of Media Environment." The course schedule and syllabus, for example, are shown on the Internet for the students to access. At first the course proceeded according to the schedule, but various circumstances brought about changes. (The topic of "Tamagotchi" was covered, for example, although it was not in original plan.) In addition, course content, including digital photos, can be viewed on the web, in lieu of taking notes."Mission: obtaining Tamagotchis" was one of the course topics. At 7:30 a.m. on May 24, the teaching assistant, while net surfing, learned that there would be a sale of 2,000 Tamagotchis in Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

He immediately went there and saw that a long line had already formed. A photo of the line, taken at 9:20 a.m., is shown on the home page. All of the people in line had found out about the sale from the net. Many mothers had even brought their children. This indicates that a great number of people use information from the Internet for shopping. Simply stated, the information obtained on the network is converted to footwork.

Future of the Mobile Network
The mobile network presents one solution to this problem. In the future this network will become part of the lives ordinary people, to the point where we may even find mobile computers in shopping baskets. It is very dangerous to think that the present state of the network is the ideal: we must recognize that the trend toward mobility, which is just beginning, will be the real source of intelligence. Does new intelligence come from somewhere on the Internet? In considering this question, we realize that when we use the Internet we are merely selecting items from a distant database; so in fact this could be considered a type of memorization or imitation. One only thinks for oneself when one has various experiences in real-life settings, absorbs them, and lets them inspire creativity. In conclusion, we believe that the important changes of the 21st century will be the developments in mobility and in network/footwork.