Behind the Scenes At a Japanese Electronics Company

Just outside Tokyo, in a huge building of long white corridors where even employees get lost, new Japanese products are taking shape. This is the applied research center of electronics giant NEC, where scientists work on a wide variety of innovations from robotics to digital sound. A tour last week revealed what might be in store for consumers around the world.

The first is software - something of a surprise for a country so hooked on electronics hardware. Nevertheless, researcher Hidey Fukuoka is working on Site Cruise Theater, a program that turns Internet surfing into an automated slide show where users can click a single button and get a whole presentation of scrolling pages on the World Wide Web. NEC hopes to begin selling the software commercially in Japan next February.

In the same lab, researchers are working on an Internet news program that automatically adapts to users' preferences by noting which articles they read and how much time they spend on them. True, similar experiments - and more of them - are taking place in the United States. The point, however, is that Japan's electronic giants are realizing the need to push into general-purpose software to remain competitive in computers.

"Japan is behind," says Satoshi Goto, general manager of the NEC laboratory. So "we are all changing our processes from hardware to more software-oriented products." Software research spending could rise to 30 percent of the lab's total research budget, he says. Internet software is a natural target for Japan. Having arrived too late to compete in word-processing and other application software, the Japanese see the Internet as a wide-open opportunity.

Other software work at NEC is not so far along. The latest version of NEC's translation program, for example, still requires the speaker to pause between words, while new US products understand normal (or so-called continuous) speech.

Of course, NEC's real strength remains hardware. Ken Sugiyama is building the technology challenger to the Sony Walkman. The difference is that his version is based on computer chips, so there are no moving parts to wear out.

The unit, called Silicon Audio, is smaller than the Walkman and weighs only three ounces. The immediate problem is its cost. To buy a flash memory card that could record about an hour's worth of music currently costs about $700. Mr. Sugiyama, a principal researcher at the NEC lab, believes the cost of the cards will fall to about $100 in three years. Then Silicon Audio could become a mass consumer item (assuming the music industry would release recordings on the cards).

Sugiyama has also adapted the technology to create a personal video viewer ("Silicon View") and a bigger-screened version for museums and other organizations to use in dispensing information to visitors ("Silicon Guide"). These products are still at the demonstration stage, although an early version of Silicon Audio has already appeared in Japan and has been sold to institutions. Sugiyama hopes to sell the audio machine to consumers within the next two years.

Some of NEC's long-term research is in robotics. Nobuaki Takanashi has built a robot snake that's modular so users can add or subtract pieces at will. He can make the machine move forward like a snake or coil up to lift its head and camera. Currently NASA and robot researchers are looking over the technology, which Mr. Takanashi hopes will eventually enter the home.

But (to the great relief of some of us), he predicts the robot snake won't make it big in households until 2020.

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