Digital Nature: Towards a World of Computing Diversity

Digital Nature, Heading Towards a World Where Humanity, Nature, and Computers are Blended Together

“Touch a stereoscopic image in the air” research
“Touch a stereoscopic image in the air” research

Hello, I am Yoichi Ochiai. I am an artist, researcher, entrepreneur, and father of one. I have been called a “modern magician” in the media. I have dedicated my life to the implementation of an ideology that people of the 21st century will be connected to computers and moving society forward from an engineering perspective. The topic of “ideology” sounds difficult, but a certain way of thinking is necessary for advancing the 21st century into an era of technology as well as nurturing people capable of doing so.

Before we started in ubiquitous computing, we have been focusing on “digital nature”, a new form of nature where the combination of computers and non-computers (humans included) exists. By combining the physical world and the virtual world (data), we can think of a society with a better “shape of diversity.”

Our digital nature laboratory hypothesizes various ways to use a computer (calculator) to produce alternatives, make inventions from an engineer’s point of view, face new challenges in problem solving for arts, sciences, and industry, and create a new set of cultural values.

Towards a World of Computing Diversity

With the advent of digital nature, the 21st century is becoming “the future form of diversity.” I call this Computing Diversity.

Many of us think “this is natural for human society”, but the way of thinking that made mass production possible originates in the 20th century. This standardization (averaging) line of thinking has shaken off something valuable.

For example, deciding what is a normal condition created the concept of being handicapped. Heteronormative definitions of marriage created the LGBTQ minority. If society as a whole embraces diversity, the concept of "normal" and "abnormal" is rendered unnecessary.

For the sake of industrial modernization, having everyone unable to agree on the best direction was bad for cost performance. This created a social system where humanity was raised for operational efficiency. From here on, computing will solve the issues where diversity clashed with standardized human society, creating a new era (Computing Diversity) that is an updated version of society that maintains diversity. As we move into an advanced and automated society, advancing diversity is inevitable.

Diversity Project

What we are researching is a way to reintigrate, optimize, and strengthen those who were omitted by standardization for an era where humans can be directly empowered by the use of computers.

Some aspects of our research include developing sensory supplementation for eyes and ears, wheelchairs, artificial limbs, and locomotive robotics which is all part of our Diversity Project.

It won’t be long before this technology becomes lightweight and affordable.
It won’t be long before this technology becomes lightweight and affordable.

For visual impairment in particular, we are developing technology where a faint laser projects an image directly on the retina giving the user the ability to see. Visual impairment is generally caused by problems with the eye’s lens, so there is a good possibility that the retina itself is can still receive visual information. By inserting a camera in the frame of a head mounted display, the images taken by the camera can be projected directly to the retina, returning the ability to see regardless of whether the subject is nearsighted, farsighted or experiencing age-related visual impairment.

Also, one’s favorite images can be projected at any time, and it can be used in their everyday life. They can appear to be floating in any previously viewed scenery.

For the Holographic Whisper project, we developed an omnidirectional speaker which can output a sound to a certain point in space with a narrow area of about one square centimeter. The point in space where the sound can be heard can be moved freely, and even if there are multiple people in the area, only the intended listener can hear it as if it were a whisper in their ear.

One of our ideas is a new type of hearing aid using technology in development. For example, it is possible to use one of these speakers in a living room that puts out a sound that only the elderly in the room are able to hear loudly and clearly. Other uses include projecting an explanation of each part of an exhibit in an art museum, or making one’s ringtone audible in a familiar but noisy place like a food court.

We are also experimenting on ways to improve existing wheelchairs with electronic wheelchairs. The biggest detractor for electronic wheelchairs is that it could be dangerous to those of advanced age if used carelessly. To that point, they could be remote controlled by nursing care personnel instead. Nursing care personnel could use the head mounted display in coordination with a 360-degree camera installed in the wheelchair to move it in a similar fashion to radio controllers. For additional safety, real-time object detection can cause the wheelchair to stop when approaching someone.

In the future, a single caretaker could either swap between supporting individual wheelchairs or move multiple wheelchairs at once in “duck crossing” mode. By reducing the time spent moving wheelchairs around, the time they have to play chess or board games together, talk or watch TV together, and various other activities can be increased.

Nursing care personnel operate the chair remotely while looking through the its camera.
Nursing care personnel operate the chair remotely while looking through the its camera.
When approaching a person, a warning appears and the chair automatically stops.
When approaching a person, a warning appears and the chair automatically stops.

Aiming for a Worldview Where Nothing is an Obstacle

Some are resistant to computers, particularly those in the nursing care industry who worry about how they will earn money once everything becomes automated. However, even with giving a mutual consideration to these business customs and political views, we believe that it is necessary to solve problems with technology wherever possible in order to propel a technologically advanced society forward.

For example, even on the same hardware, different programs can give each user different features. By applying this to wheelchairs, we could create great changes in personal mobility. When computer support enables us to “move naturally”, we will no longer see movement as an obstacle.

For example, the aging population of Japan is usually discussed in negative terms, but it could also be thought of in terms of diversity. Declining eyesight, hearing, and mobility; all of these are diversity. Increase the sphere of activity of the elderly or disabled creates the possibility for a better, more comfortable future for everyone.

A man using a Telewheelchair
A man using a Telewheelchair

I want to think about ways to make machine intelligence and human intelligence work together in a hybrid system. This quick and efficient problem solving system would determine what is better for a human to do, what is better for a machine to do, and what should be mutually supplemented. Once people feel that it is natural to work together with machines, I believe that diversity will be accelerated.

When we watch a science fiction movie, we never think that a character whose body is partially mechanical is disabled. We see them as scary, strong, or cool. For those who think having a mechanical arm sounds stylish and useful; they could see those who only have one arm and ask themselves what it would be like to have three. Thinking in this way could make using machines seem just like wearing glasses. The 21st century is heading towards such a worldview.

Raising Diversity from Mass Production to Made to Order

We have been repeatedly producing the same things in large, cheap quantities since the late 1800s. The problem we must solve is not just the size and scale of hardware, but how do computers help individuals cope with the obstacles they face and what solutions are possible going forward. So, our purpose is to find how to find a way to raise diversity by shifting to “made to order.”

Even though we can use CG to freely design any shape, production is still limited by things that have already been mass produced. For example, if we want to create a robot, we would have to use parts that are bought at an electronics store.

Rather than put effort into hardware development, we are putting effort into software development that will fill in the gaps created by a dependency on existing objects when trying to use CG to freely design things using data. I like to think about ways for the Zaku suits to come together and be able to defeat a Gundam.


Raising People Who Can Read the Future

Diversity production is a very creative concept, and people should be trained for it. In my lab, we have a project called “Make a Spring that Only Curves in One Direction.” We create these characters with bendable legs or ears in CG. We then 3D print them and try to find ways to make them move.

Project Coded Skeleton
Project Coded Skeleton

We can make materials that are flexible like springs, but controlling the degree of freedom in which it bends is difficult. We imagined creating materials that can move in fixed directions akin to how a foot or finger can smoothly move by coordinating joints and muscles. We ran computer simulations to analyze the output and developed what we call the Coded Skeleton. By using skeletal components that can take any shape or appearance, output can be made consistent with a computer’s calculated design. This makes diverse production possible.

Alan Kay, father of the personal computer, said “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” My interpretation of that is “To predict the value of future products, we must invent them.”

Investing in the young has always been the key to making the future, but the way of receiving the money to create the necessary research environment is still the problem to this day. That is why we are turning to crowdfunding for undergraduate research education.

Use of budget

To foster machine learning and CG modeling, the creation of a machine learning environment and equipment for 3D printing is necessary. I want to prepare IoT/AI for permeating the “digital nature” era which needs essential “physical installations” and “mathematical modeling ability” for educational purposes. From this, by means of industrial-academic cooperation, there is a potential for collaborative research among students (graduate school or graduation year researchers) as well as those still in primary education aiming to be enrolled to perform research education.

Establishing an undergraduate research environment is limited by other public and research and development budgets. Therefore, it is difficult for universities to create a freely usable environment. Although we are proactively working with corporations and public projects to perform collaborative research to solve societal problems, the equipment available to undergraduates to utilize their creativity is limited.

The GPU servers required for deep learning are expensive. The high-resolution printers required for researching 3D printing are also more expensive than normal printers. Our purpose is to maintain these budgets and secure a budget for unhindered research education.

About Tax Incentives

Donations made through fundFlyer for this project go to the University of Tsukuba, a national university of Japan. As such, donations may be tax deductable. For more details, please see the “Tax Incentives” portion of the project’s page on Readyfor.