TOKYO-It's notoriously hard to predict what technologies will escape the lab and into the real world. For every hundred prototypes shown off to the media with massive coverage and expectations of greatness, maybe 99 never hit a store shelf.
At this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, for example, a handful of manufacturers demonstrated tablets and other mobile devices loaded with some form of glasses-free 3D technology. By and large, that hardware has yet to appear. Other examples are numerous, and go to reinforce one of the central tenets of both marketing and technology: Never say something's ready for market until it's on a truck headed for the retailer.
That being said, Japan's CEATEC conference offers a glimpse of technology that could find its way onto devices in the United States, in one form or another. The Japanese companies demonstrating their wares here seem determined to seize more of the global market and mindshare, perhaps in response to Taiwanese and Korean rivals seizing much of the initiative in areas such as tablets-and that, in turn, could give some of these innovations the momentum they need to vault onto U.S. store shelves.
Kyocera is using the conference to demonstrate its advances in touch-screen technology, including an innovation that attempts to make virtual buttons "feel" more realistic. A show-floor prototype offered various icons on a touch screen, each of which generated a specific kind of feedback: the sensation of a camera-shutter double-click, in one instance, or hard and soft buttons. Will something like that eventually appear in finished smartphones? Time will tell.
The Japanese companies here also seem determined to push into specific verticals such as health care. NTT Docomo is offering medical sensor "jackets," which enclose a smartphone and come with sensors that allow users to measure body mass, judge alcohol level or test the radiation level in the air. You slide the smartphone into the device and activate the accompanying software app to start the process.
A local concern named Cyberdyne is developing an Intel-powered "robot suit," a lower-body exoskeleton designed to operate via the user's brain signals. One of the suit's stated aims is medical, namely helping disabled people move around.
It seems more likely, however, that the consumer-oriented innovations will be the ones to break onto a more global stage. Hitachi is trying to reduce televisions' energy consumption by offering the ability to watch a picture within a smaller window on the screen. Those companies here are continuing to push 3D televisions-with glasses or without-in a big way.
Japanese companies also want to reclaim the initiative in automobile technology. In addition to a focus on electric vehicles-which have the capability to power a home, no less-companies ranging from Pioneer to Panasonic have been developing highly advanced dashboard systems that feed navigational data to the driver and entertainment to the passengers. Pioneer's AR (augmented reality) HUD is a head's up display that offers real-time road data to the driver.
When asked, these companies' representatives are more than happy to offer release dates and often price points for these products on the Japanese market. Their eventual presence in the United States, though, is a far more ambiguous matter. Japan dearly wants to reclaim its position as a forefront innovator, but its tech firms are still debating about how to make that happen.