Central Research Laboratories
1-1 Miyazaki 4-chome, Miyamae-Ku
Kawasaki, Kanagawa 216, Japan
Date Visited: May 24, 1995
Report Author: E. Glinert
NEC was founded in 1899 to import and manufacture communications equipment. At the time of the JTEC visit, it was ranked fortieth among Fortune 500 industrial companies, with over 140,000 employees worldwide, 15,000 products, and annual sales well in excess of ¥3 trillion (~$30 billion). Since 1977, the corporate focus has been on the integration of computers and communications, which is referred to as "C&C." NEC's research laboratories were established in 1939. The Kawasaki facility in the Kanto (eastern) district of Japan was inaugurated in 1975. The C&C Information Technology Research Laboratories at Kawasaki were formed in 1986. The Kansai (western) C&C Research Laboratories were set up in 1990, followed by the Princeton facility in 1991 and the Bonn facility in 1994. These installations comprise the core of the company's Research and Development Group.
About 10% of annual sales revenue is reinvested in the research conducted throughout the company, which is not narrowly focused but rather spans the gamut of computer science. Each operating group has its own research labs and development division, which pursue near-term goals. The Research and Development Group undertakes longer-term projects. Its budget is about 10% of the total allocated company-wide to R&D (that is, about 1% of annual sales revenue). Group employees number about 1,600 in total, 900 of whom are at the Kawasaki facility; about 1,300 of these people are classified as researchers. The four major areas of investigation are new materials, new devices, C&C systems, and software, with about 60% of resources going to materials and devices. Most HCI-related research is conducted at the smaller Kansai labs.
After introductions and greetings, Dr. Yamamoto noted that this was the fourth JTEC mission to visit his laboratories! He then presented an overview of the labs' research activities related to multimedia human interfaces and systems, after which Osamu Iseki described some of the research being carried out at Kansai, with particular emphasis on work related to barrier-free interfaces for the elderly and for people with disabilities. Iseki stressed the great importance his group places on usability testing as an integral part of their research, so much so that the laboratory had developed computerized tools for recording and analyzing data about the user-machine dialog for both textual and graphical interfaces. Both presentations were conducted from a computer via a large-screen projector, which was noteworthy because it was the first time the author had seen such technology in use at any host site during the JTEC study mission. There followed a tour in which the team was given demos of and brief explanations about 7 products and prototypes.
The Multimedia Internet Navigation System (MINS) is a prototype multimedia on demand system using a 2.4 gigabit ATM LAN of NEC's own manufacture with throughput of 154 Mbits/sec. For the demo, three nodes -- a Sun, an NEC, and an NEC/PC -- were interconnected. Separate image and CD-quality audio streams are maintained with the help of proprietary compression and synchronization algorithms. Features such as fast forward, pause/still, and reverse are supported.
The Multimedia Environment for Remote Multiple-Attendee Interactive Decision-Making, or Office Mermaid, is a multimedia groupware platform that supports full media (text, graphics, images, handwritten notes, voice, and video) for real-time interactive multiparty conferencing, information sharing, and joint processing. Multiple workstations and PCs of different manufacture can all be interconnected. A variety of configurations and input devices are available, including a large pressure sensitive flat panel color plasma display with 60 in. diagonal measure, and a display in which the image is projected onto a screen that is actually a one-way mirror behind which a camera is mounted to provide eye contact among participants. Although only several hundred systems have been sold to date, the company reports that demand for the product is growing.
PC-VAN, an on-line information system, currently has about a million subscribers, half of them in the home. Freeware comes preinstalled on NEC/PCs sold in Japan; the user pays a monthly fee plus communication time charges. The system provides e-mail service for subscribers, and access to information (e.g., multimedia fish library - see Fig. NEC.1), but does not at this time interface to the World Wide Web.
The goal of brain wave analysis is to eventually be able to use these signals, measured via EEG or SQUID, to directly control machines. Work is very preliminary at present, with dipole localization being attempted with the help of a hybrid estimation algorithm that combines techniques from neural networks (for computational speed) and numerical optimization theory (for accuracy).
A virtual skiing system, VR-SKI is intended for training and entertainment, including competition via a network. The user stands not on skis, but rather on a platform equipped with load and angle sensors, which can swing right and left while the user holds onto a handrail. Information on weight distribution is used to dynamically adjust system responses. The system employs a large screen projector with audio to support the illusion of movement with the help of an original virtual reality (VR) software architecture that relies on distributed processing on low-cost PCs. The general appearance is that of a large exercise machine mounted facing a large projection television. The developers intend to adapt the system to other sports training and VR applications in the future.
Fig. NEC.1. Multimedia fish library.
The high-contrast, wide-viewing-angle LCD uses dual-domain pixels and complementary twisted nematic (TN) and electrically controlled birefringence (ECB) polarization technology to provide a contrast range of 100:1 and viewing angle of up to 60 degrees, as opposed to the conventional 40 degrees. The improved performance, which became dramatically apparent with increased distance, has been achieved by dividing each pixel into two equal domain areas, with a black stripe overlaid on top of the dividing line to hide it. The 13 in. prototype was said to currently be too expensive to justify its inclusion in products.
The Auditory Touchscreen Display is a prototype system that can provide auditory feedback as the cursor is moved across screen entities such as icons, windows, and borders (see Fig. 5.7). At present voice/text output only is generated according to touch or action, but both Braille and image pin enhancements are planned for the future. In initial tests blind subjects said they did not think that the current version would be a good I/O device for daily use, because it is difficult for them to search on a surface without system guidance.
This work is part of a recently-begun joint effort by NEC, IBM/Japan, and Hitachi to develop an adaptive multimedia barrier-free interface for the elderly and for differently-abled users (NEC terminology). The five-year effort will run through 1998, and is being funded by MITI through NEDO (the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization) at a level of ¥500 million (~$5 million) in total. NEC, the managing company for the consortium, is responsible for providing nonvisual access to the GUI, while IBM/Japan is developing a graphics reader and Hitachi is working on spatial sound displays.
Several interesting points were raised during the concluding discussions. Dr. Yamamoto pointed out that Japan lacks big university laboratories like those in the United States, and that few faculty are involved in research. He also noted that cable television in Japan has achieved penetration of just 10% of households to date, so further advances like fiber-optic systems, which were supposed to be in place by 1998, will in fact take longer than originally planned to come on-line. Osamu Iseki noted that usability engineering does not yet play the role it should in Japanese industry, the efforts of his own company in this regard notwithstanding. Psychologists, cognitive scientists, and other design experts are rarely involved to any significant extent in new product development, nor is HCI taught in the universities.
Iseki, O. N.d. Barrier-free interface research at KCRL. Overhead notes.
NEC. N.d. NEC: A World Vision. Brochure
____. NEC Research and Development. Brochure.
____. NEC Office Mermaid EWS4800 Series. Brochure.
____. NEC multimedia human interface and system. Overhead notes.