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Thinking about travel in 2020 and beyond from the perspective of communications technology

Makoto Yoneya NTT Communication
Science Laboratories
Kenichi Nishikawa NTT Access Network
Service Systems Laboratories
Kentaro Ogawa NTT Network
Service Systems Laboratories
Kenzo Okuda NTT Network
Technology Laboratories

What communications technology related to “travel” do you think has innovatively changed the world?

Yoneya Probably GPS. In the past you had to unfold a map and look at the buildings around you in order to work out where you were while travelling. Now you can find out immediately by opening a map app on your smartphone. If you enter your destination, it also gives you your route. In that sense, “Route Search” is also a technology that will make travelling a lot more convenient.

Nishikawa I think it is the SNS-type of community site. For example, if you’re travelling overseas with children and want to know whether a restaurant allows small children, you can look at the comments on a reliable community site and make your own decision about the restaurant’s atmosphere. These sites provide the extra information that you can’t get in a travel guide, so I feel they have made travelling a lot easier.

Ogawa Audio translation technology. I used to walk around with a pocket dictionary. Then electronic dictionaries appeared, but the number of languages that could be used was restricted. Now, with a smartphone’s audio translation app, you can handle all sorts of languages. Moreover, it has voice recognition, so you don’t have to type in each word at a time. It can also convert the translation into speech. I have used it several times for translating to Russian and managed to get by at the hotel, on public transport and in the shops with absolutely no problem at all.

Okuda I think it is the increased speed of the Internet and the improved performance of more compact devices. For example, when I was a child, communication speeds were slow, so it was a real effort to send an 110,000 pixel photo on a mobile phone. Now, with smartphones, you can send amazingly high resolution videos and photos, and if you have a problem you can search for all sorts of information at any time. I think that faster Internet speeds and the improved performance of more compact devices will also drive changes in the way that people travel in the future.

Which latest communication technology for connecting the world do you think is amazing?

Okuda What I think is about to become amazing is the brain-computer interface. This is a technology that directly transmits information between the brain and a machine, by reading brain signals and stimulating the brain. It is already possible for someone to move a cursor on a screen by attaching a brain-wave sensor to the subject's head. If this technology can be innovated a bit more, we may end up not needing sensors or devices any more, as they will be embedded. If the brain can connect directly to the Internet, things will get even more interesting. If they started doing experiments, I would want to sign up straight away. (Laughs)

Ogawa Probably, UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicle). I think this technology can be used to respond to major disasters. When a failure has occurred somewhere on the network, we will be able to maintain communications by sending out a drone fitted with a router function to bypass the affected network route. UAVs can also reach places that are inaccessible by car and I expect that it will be possible to create a wide area network by using multiple vehicles.

Nishikawa The technology for systems development is now changing rapidly and development efficiency is also improving. In other words, if you think up some new idea, you can now release it quickly. In that respect, I am staying completely focused on all virtualization technology, and, in a broader sense, on extraction technology that can remove the essential elements from objects.

Yoneya I think that haptic communication is quite interesting. For example, the feeling of typing on a keyboard can be captured by a sensor and sent to someone who is far away. Although that other person has no keyboard, he or she can enjoy the sensation of typing, just as if there was a keyboard there. It is still at the research stage, but I don’t think the world where you can sit at home and enjoy various sensations is that far away.

How would you like to use communications technology
to be hospitable to visitors to Japan during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics?

Ogawa The other day at R&D Forum 2016 there was a demonstration of an interesting technology that turns a smartphone into a controller that guides the user along a route by pulling his or her hands to the left or right. I think it will become a useful function for travelers when it is linked to communications services. If it can be further developed and its communication function strengthened, it may even be able to detect an oncoming car and “make” you take evasive action.

Yoneya Up until now with positional information technology, if you weren't connected to GPS or a wireless network, your current location wasn't accurate, but the technology has progressed to the point that now you can get directions even if you are offline. In order to provide accurate directions to tourists who will visit for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the precision of positional information may be an important factor.

Nishikawa Someone was talking just there about audio translation, but there are a lot of signs and notices around town that are only in Japanese, so I think it would be very useful for tourists if they could point a glasses-like device or smartphone at them and see a real-time translation of the text.

Okuda At last year’s R&D Forum there was a technology that could display real-time translations and display additional information if you pointed a smartphone at a sign.

Yoneya It would be even easier for the user if the device was worn like glasses. Most of the current glasses-type devices are used to display things, but if you could run a current inside them you could measure the movement of the user’s eyes. By combining with this sort of thing, I hope that maybe the technology that we are researching could also be fitted to the device.

Okuda I’m looking at a technology called Kirari! that was also getting a lot of attention at R&D Forum 2016 the other day. It sends spatial information from a sporting event to a remote location, where it is reproduced in real time with quasi-3D, using multiple videos and sound. The use of this technology enables a public viewing in a remote location that is closer to the actual experience.

Ogawa I also experienced Kirari! at R&D Forum 2016, and you feel as if the players are right in front of you. I was amazed because the quality was so high that you couldn’t distinguish it from the real thing.

Looking beyond 2020, please tell us what you think will happen to communications technology and what you, as an engineer, hope to achieve.

Yoneya I would like to be able to have the experience of staying in Japan, but feeling as if I’ve gone somewhere like Machu Picchu. To do that, you need to keep sending virtual information and also add haptic communication, such as the feeling of the wind on your face, to make the experience seem more real. Also, someone was talking about social media just now, but if the travelers who had actually been there could upload more live information to the network, it would make the experience more precise. It would be fun to be able to create that sort of setup.

Nishikawa I have always been working on improving operational efficiency, so I would like to continue thinking along those lines. The sort of deployment where you do a top-down installation of a core system in a big company is of course important, but I also think that, for balance, companies need to do bottom-up deployment, absorbing various ideas and solutions from each working level. I would like to continue to create technology that allows people to work more energetically and happily.

Ogawa I’m now involved with the NetroSphere concept. This is the idea of breaking up a network into its constituent devices, technologies and elements and then allowing them to be freely combined. The important point is that the use of versatile parts allows you to build network infrastructure flexibly and cheaply. Even now, there are lots of people in the world who can’t access a network, so I hope that this initiative will allow more people to connect.

Okuda I think that a world in which the brain can connect directly to the Internet will really come about. The thing that I’m scared about when that happens is that some malicious person will try to send dangerous signals into other people’s heads. We need to put some mechanism on the network to prevent that sort of thing. However, at the moment, the security is being left to the people who are building apps and services. I believe that it is the duty of researchers to build this secure mechanism, as part of the infrastructure of the NetroSphere and of future networks.

Travel and communications may appear to be thematically unconnected.
But, the unique way of thinking of these engineers have made us realize once again
the importance of the role of communications.
We look forward to seeing what sort of new experiences
they will create for us in 2020 and beyond.