Tonchidot: Taking Augmented Reality Beyond Lab Science with Fearless Creativity and Business Savvy

Thu, Sep 17, 2009

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Sekai Camera has a slick new demo video out that is already causing a stir in the Japanese press (see Beyond the Beyond).  This video shows a ton of stuff going on! (A friend who lives in Tokyo pointed out to me that, in Japan, people are used to working with “busier” mobile UIs.)

Takahito Iguchi, founder of Tonchidot the company that has created Sekai Camera, is ultra cool.  Coming to augmented reality from the worlds of anime and manga culture, he is  already a successful entrepreneur with excellent sartorial taste (as Bruce Sterling notes).  Before turning his attention to AR, Iguchi-san was founder of Digitao, where he pioneered a blogging + social networking service “chibikki (Little Diary).” Also Iguchi-san spent time at JUST Systems and Scitron & Art, where he developed innovative multimedia platforms and web services.

But Takahito Iguchi doesn’t give interviews in English.  So recently, as part of my series of interviews with members of the AR Consortium, I found myself talking to the brilliant,  CFO of Tonchidot, Ken Inoue. Inoue-san’s specialties include the Japanese mobile market, start-up finance, alliances, new business development, and international expansion.

And while, perhaps, I would have liked to learn more about how cool Japanese sub-cultures are informing the future of AR, with every business analyst under the sun opining on the future of this young industry, it is good to hear directly from an augmented reality CFO who is actually shaping business development on the ground.  And Tonchidot is one of  AR’s most interesting start ups.

With Tonchidot, I think we are beginning to taste a magic brew as augmented reality, long nurtured only in lab scientist cultures, meets business savvy and fearless creativity.

Bruce Sterling posted the video below, noting:

“Tonchidot tearin’ it up at the department store. Check out that exceedingly weird and/or clever AR-iPhone pistol grip device that kicks in around 2:20.”

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The AR Commons

In the interview below, Ken Inoue also describes an important organization that Tonchidot has helped create – the AR Commons.

Ken Inoue: We feel that public data, such as landmarks, government facilities, and public transport should be shared. We see an AR world where people can readily and easily access information by just seeing – quick, easy, and efficient.  And because of this ease and intuitiveness, children, the elderly and handicapped will surely benefit.  AR could help create a safer society.  Warnings, alerts, and safety information could save lives and avoid disasters.  These are what we, and AR Commons would like to tackle in the not so distant future.

An AR Commons is something we should all be thinking about. “Augmented reality could be a new public infrastructure,” as Tim O’Reilly noted in Twitter. I will discuss this more in my upcoming post on the recent Gov 2.0 Summit which was was an extraordinary event – an historic manifestation of the current wave of transformation in the nature of Government that Carl Malamud described in his address, “By The People,” available as video, audio and text here.  Carl Malamud received a standing ovation at the Summit.

Malamud pointed out:

“We are now witnessing a third wave of change – an Internet wave – where the underpinnings and machinery of government are used not only by bureaucrats and civil servants, but by the people.”

Talking with Ken Inoue, CFO, Tonchidot


Tish Shute: There has been some skepticism lately that augmented reality experiences will live up to the recent hype (see this post for example). But Tonchidot has a reputation for creativity, as you pointed out, “we are not “AR lab scientists” – we are from the worlds of multimedia, visual arts, publishing, lovers of manga and anime and Japanese sub-culture…. ” What is Tonchidot’s approach to designing AR experiences that can deliver wonder, curiosity and discovery – the emotions of AR, despite the limitations of GPS+compass implementations of mobile AR?

Ken Inoue:
We have been facing skepticism ever since we started!  It doesn’t really bother us, it never has.  As for the opposite, the recent hype, well, we will have to live with that too.  We are aware of the hype cycle, the obstacles that lie ahead.  We are not rejoicing, and we will be prepared.  By the way, I didn’t think the said article was skeptical at all – in fact, I took it as great advice.

Tish Shute: Most augmented reality experiences are at the moment about one person experiencing multiple streams of content, we haven’t seen any multiuser realtime interaction in augmented reality yet, for example, people teaming up to accomplish some goal?  What do you think will be the most exciting aspects of shared augmented reality experiences? And, we are yet to see a really mobile augmented reality game get a mass audience.  Pong was a landmark game for the PC.  It really excited people because there was a “Wow! my physical action is changing what is seen?”  What would be an equivalent Wow! experience for augmented reality?

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Ken Inoue: We wish we had an answer to that! :) We are talking to many game developers, and everyone has different ideas…  we want to test them all! We are striving to be a social application, and we are thinking hard.  But often times, users find new uses and come up with really unexpected, but ingenious ideas… that’s the nature of social experiences, I guess.

Tish Shute: It is a year since you demoed at TC50.  What have been the most exciting developments in augmented reality this year and what have been the biggest disappointments?

Ken Inoue: We’re definitely excited about what other start-ups in the field are doing across the ocean.  We get a lot of stimulation, and we see it as something close to a great sporting rivalry, but only, we aren’t that great yet….  Our disappointment was that we weren’t able to release our app this summer….

Tish Shute: I know you can’t give too many details about your upcoming iphone launch because you are in “stealth mode” and because of Apple’s NDA. But I will start with a general question: “Do you think that Apple is going down the right path with what they are or aren’t making available to developers?”

Ken Inoue: Looking back at Apple’s short history in iPhone and AppStore, they’ve slowly but steadily headed in the path of more openness. And what with the FCC making an inquiry to Apple about the rejected Google Voice application, they’re forced to be more friendly and open to developers, whether they want to or not…

Tish Shute: How is Tonchidot going to differentiate itself in an exploding field of new augmented reality companies?

Ken Inoue: Well, I feel that the market for augmented reality is still in such a nascent stage, that the priority for many of us is cooperation, rather than cut-throat competition.  That’s the rationale for the AR Consortium that was founded by Robert Rice and others very recently, and something that we completely subscribe to.  In Japan, Tonchidot is the central proponent in AR Commons, an organization which has already started building a social database for AR.

Tish Shute: What do you think of the augmented reality applications released recently?

Ken Inoue: There are now so many cool AR apps out there – we’d like to think that our presentation at TC50 back in September 2008 stimulated fellow developers just a little bit.  Many AR applications and services seem to capture the benefits of AR in some way or another very well.  I think maybe the difference between our service and what some others are doing, is that we are initially focused on UGC (user generated content) – not on business applications and tools.  However, it’s just a matter of prioritization, I think – it seems we all share the same dream!

Tish Shute: Yes I like the way you have taken these the concepts “world camera”  and “air tagging” and focused on the social aspects – social tagging.  Wikitude now has a way for users to create tags – which is a big step forward too I think.

Ken Inoue: Yes, indeed!  It seems they have done a great job.  Their success, and the success of everyone else helps us too, since it generates media attention, and also ideas for how it can be applied to the real world and real businesses.

Tish Shute: There is a a growing development of AR browser like experiences, Wikitude, Layar, and Sekai Camera but they are not true browser experiences (in the sense that we experience web browsers) as they don’t share AR data across browsers. How can we move towards a situation of sharing augmented reality data? What are the obstacles to sharing AR data across browsers now?  I guess these obstacles are business obstacles mainly, not technical obstacles. But what do you think?

Ken Inoue:
Because AR is in many ways location dependent, geographic coverage always will be a challenge for anyone.  This means that collaboration makes sense. I don’t think there are many technical obstacles, and some things can already be shared though open APIs. The issue of sharing AR data can not be solved by any one company – We believe we must make collaborative efforts. 

As I mentioned, we helped create an organization called AR Commons which has already started building a social database for AR in Japan.   However, sharing ALL data on this platform will be a challenge, since so many interests will need to be aligned.  Not all info is shared on the internet, and some prefer closed and secure environments.

Tish Shute: What is your vision for AR Commons in the next 12 months?

Ken Inoue: We feel that public data, such as landmarks, government facilities, and public transport should be shared. We see an AR world where people can readily and easily access information by just seeing – quick, easy, and efficient.  And because of this ease and intuitiveness, children, the elderly and handicapped will surely benefit.  AR could help create a safer society.  Warnings, alerts, and safety information could save lives and avoid disasters.  These are what we, and AR Commons would like to tackle in the not so distant future.

Tish Shute: What is  the business model for Sekai Camera?  Do you have to subscribe to create? Otherwise just view?

Ken Inoue: All users can create AirTags – we want to allow all users to start AirTagging and add value to our service.  We wanted everybody to make tags, and we didn’t want to put a hurdle on it.

So, users can create text, voice, image/photo tags and can add comments on the tags – much like blogging and twitter. We will also mash up with many other social services which will strengthen the “social” aspect of our app.

Tish Shute: are you aiming for something close to the real time experience of Twitter?  And what will attract users over other social location based apps like Bright Kite using 2 dimensional maps?

Ken Inoue: Our service is very close to real-time already – only, because of the location specific aspect, it will be different.  It will definitely be something new.  Maps will also be integrated.

Tish Shute: And Sekai camera will work anywhere in the world?

Ken Inoue: We have named and designed it to be global! :)

However, it’s definitely easier for any company to focus on your home market first.  Being a Japanese company, we are initially concentrating on the Japanese market.  It’s still the second largest economy in the world, one of the leaders in the mobile internet market, full of geeks and early adopters of new technologies.  And what’s more, we already have a great buzz here, and it’s easier to talk and collaborate with local partners.  For any company building AR apps, geography and platform may be the difficult decisions to make, since first-mover advantage may become quite significant…  We are lucky to have such a large and hungry home market.

Tish Shute: Yes you have Denno Coil too. One of my big inspirations!

Ken Inoue: Oh, you know about it!  How surprising!

Tish Shute: You mentioned  CEO did a talk session with the creator of denno coil recently.

Ken Inoue: Yes, “Denno Coil” shows us what the future could be, and is very inspiring.  We actually didn’t know about Denno Coil until afterwards, although it was broadcast on national TV.

There is a picture on the web article of our talk session – on the right, you see our CEO, Takahito Iguchi, on the left, Mitsuo Iso, creator of Denno Coil.  Iso-san knew about the Sekai camera, and in fact, gave us lots of hints and advice on how to make it better.  He is a real technology lover – a mac lover, and iphone lover.

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Tish Shute: Iguchi-san is a very inspiring and charismatic thinker and I would love to know about some of his imaginings for augmented realities. What are his AR imaginings for the next step after air tagging! What does Iguchi-san see Tonchidot doing in 2010? And then beyond that? And, what are some augmented realities he would like to see even beyond the limitations of current technologies?

Ken Inoue: We believe the possibilities are infinite! There are so many things we can and would like to do, but so limited resources.. So here again, what we and other fellow AR pioneers will be doing will depend on how we prioritize.  We would like to keep our plans secret for now. :)

Tish Shute: Does Iguchi-san see Tonchidot doing more with image recognition and the tight alignment of graphics with physical objects in the near future?

Ken Inoue: Yes, definitely!  We are already in talks with potential partners. There are some great technologies here in Japan, which were just waiting for us!

Tish Shute: And when will we get the kind of eyeware that would really change everything? (I noticed one Japanese company that is producing eyewear - what is their potential? Are their other eyewear initiatives in Japan?  What does Tonchidot think will be key to pushing this kind of hardware development for AR forward?

Ken Inoue: Yes indeed, the world of Denno Coil is not too far away….  There are actually many projects going on in Japan, and we are definitely interested in hardware development.  We are not short of world-class hardware developers here in Japan, and we have been approached by quite a few.

Tish Shute: I know you got some criticism for showing a concept video at last year’s TechCrunch50 which people felt didn’t show the technology you had actually developed. Do you have all the functionality shown in your video working now?

Ken Inoue: Hmm.. We did get criticism, and so it seems did TechCrunch – but we got far more praise and support!  I guess we really felt we needed to get the idea out there – As Robert said in your interview -  it’s hard to make people understand the full potential of AR.  And unless you show something like that in video form, it’s difficult to make people understand.  We showed TC50 our working prototype on the iPhone, and made it clear that the video was a vision of the future.  Because of the language barrier, we used simple phrases like, “Look up, not down” and “AirTag”.  TC50 let us make the presentation, for which we are very very thankful.

Tish Shute: Oh I love the term Air Tagging. It is a brilliant term!  Robert Rice noted it has the ring of terms like xerox and kleenex – i.e. a brand that becomes the “thing” and no longer a brand, congrats!  Sekai (World) Camera is really nice concept too!

Ken Inoue: Thanks!

Tish Shute: Recently @rhymo of SPRXMobile tweeted that Samsung NL was calling #augmentedreality the Optical Internet.  The resulting Twitter discussion gave a pretty resounding the thumbs down to the term Optical Internet with no’s from @bruces and my friend Gene Becker.

RT @genebecker: No @Rhymo, Optical Internet misses the point that #AR will be multimodal, multisensory, social, contextual

I tweeted that I thought Tonchidot my be able to improve on the term augmented reality considering your great track record with word smithing.  Has the Tonchidot team got any ideas for a better term?

Ken Inoue: *** Good question – the term “AR” is too techy/difficult…..  we agree.
But we haven’t thought of a good alternative term yet…

Tish Shute: Who came up with the term “air tags?”

Ken Inoue: Our CEO, Takahito Iguchi did.  He has a talent for creating names, phrases…  and the future, we hope. :)
Our members are not “AR lab scientists” – we are from the worlds of multimedia, visual arts, publishing, lovers of manga and anime and Japanese sub-culture….

Tish Shute: You mentioned Tonchidot has been very involved in Android development community in Japan. can you tell me more about this and what have been areas Tonchidot has been most interested in? What do the Tonchidot developers think have been the most exciting new developments with Android?

Ken Inoue: Yes,  core members of our tech team are key members of the Android movement in Japan, and we are influenced greatly by what’s happening there.  Their openness is very very attractive indeed!  It was a tough decision whether to choose Android or iPhone as our first application platform. There are pros and cons.

The android dev community is unofficial, of course, but we have been invited to speak and do demos very often -  one of our demos is in the media – shooting games on Android.  It was quite a while back, and our app is now far ahead.

Tish Shute: But Sekai Camera will be released on the iphone?

Ken Inoue: YES, if  all goes well – as many have pointed out, iPhone is not PERFECT – no device is, at least currently.

Tish Shute: Yes and how is the iphone uptake in Japan – the big plus in the US is the big user base?

Ken Inoue: Yes that’s the big difference.   In Japan, Softbank, the #3 carrier is marketing it – for now. They don’t release numbers, but I think there are 1M handsets already sold.  Still very small compared to other markets.  BTW, In Japan, roughly 35M handsets were sold last year, dropping from 50M in previous years.

Tish Shute: Yes it seems at the moment application developers are forced to choose between the US market and the rest of the world! So what is the status of Android in the Japanese mobile market – the iphone is pretty tiny

Ken Inoue: We just had a release of the first Android phone by NTT DoCoMo a couple of months ago, so still very very early.

Tish Shute: So Android phones market is even smaller than the iphone

Ken Inoue: Yes, and so our decision to release on the iPhone -
We haven’t provided our app for android yet – just demos. It’s too small of a market, at least for now.

Tish Shute: Robert put out an interesting question: “Are we letting the short term glitz of Apple and the iPhone fad pull us in the wrong direction? Shouldnt we be focusing on symbian devices that have the lion’s share of the market? or should we be looking more at either other OSs (winmobile, android) or not at all and trying to create a new platform that is more MID and less smart phone with a hardware partner?”

Ken Inoue: Good point. We certainly don’t wish to be Apple dependent, or dependent on anyone.  As much as we like Apple and iPhone, we will surely create apps for other platforms. We always get question/requests to create symbian apps, and we would like to do that – but in order of prioritization- we’re a small start-up.

Tish Shute: There are obstacles to creating AR apps on symbian devices aren’t there?

Ken Inoue: The AR experience we can provide on iPhone and android, can not be replicated on conventional phones.  However, we haven’t examined possibilities on Symbian in detail yet, so we can’t say much.

Tish Shute: iphone adoption in the US has really put augmented reality on the map.

Ken Inoue: It certainly has!

In Japan, it is rumored that iPhone will soon be marketed by multiple carriers, in addition to Softbank. That will be a boost for us.  Apple is moving gradually to a multi-carrier strategy, I believe.  With content getting richer, Apple will be required to partner with carriers with strong infrastructure.

Tish Shute: Recently I have  been exploring the strengths of Google Wave protocol for some aspects of mobile augmented reality.

And this is, perhaps, a question for the Tech team perhaps?  Do the Tonchidot devlopers think Google Wave would be an interesting jumping off point for some augmented reality standards?

Ken Inoue: Our tech members haven’t been able to examine this in detail yet – but we are definitely excited!

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categories: Android, Augmented Reality, digital public space, Instrumenting the World, internet of things, iphone, Mixed Reality, mobile augmented reality, mobile meets social, Mobile Reality, new urbanism, ubiquitous computing, Web 2.0, Web Meets World, websquared
tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments For This Post

  1. Darkflame Says:

    “. However, sharing ALL data on this platform will be a challenge, since so many interests will need to be aligned. Not all info is shared on the internet, and some prefer closed and secure environments.”

    Thats certainly true.
    Which, to me, states well the need to have both public and private data possible on the same standard.
    AR needs to be like a webbrowser to take off, but only in terms of “one application able to access all data sources”.
    But not all those datasources should be as public as a webpage is.

    GoogleWave, once again, seems to fit the bill, as it dosnt broadcast data outwards if the data is only exchanged between users within a sever. (which could be within one company).

    So you could have your private Denno-Coil esq windows hovering in space around you….but you could also let your friends and family see your Densuke following you about :)
    Too separate channels (or waves) of information. Private and public.

    There is just as much as need for a shared AR world as there is a private one.
    And critically…both need to be viewable at the same time for the user!

    When we finally get nice ARspecs, the need will become very obvious.

    “I guess we really felt we needed to get the idea out there – As Robert said in your interview – it’s hard to make people understand the full potential of AR”

    Sadly, this is quite correct.
    Concept videos can be very powerfull tool to show the potential of a bit of technology that is ever-so-close, but not yet existing.
    I feel someone needs to produce a “day in the life” video showing the real world benefits of having slick denno-coil esq technology commonplace. It really would impact practically everything we do.

    The criticism of the released video, I feel purely was due to it not being very clear (perhaps due to language issues), that it was a concept.

    “Ken Inoue: *** Good question – the term “AR” is too techy/difficult….. we agree. ”

    I’m not actually sure a technical name is much of a problem.

    “Inter-network” after all, is pretty technical when you think about it.
    Google (Googleplex), is the same.

    I just think we need something thats simply and rolls of the toung. AR is too harsh and cold. Need something like web.
    My own thinking is “Arn”, its basically AR-network, but pronouncing it softly “arn” rather then “A.R” to me sounds quite nice.
    But whatever we end up with needs to be easily prouncable for everyone. I don’t think the meaning has to be that great.

    Anyway, great interview as always, and I really look forward to seeing where things progress.
    Especially if they are going to look at GoogleWave
    Its really nice also to see someone from the industry say Denno-Coil isnt that far away ;)

  2. toby Says:

    +1 DarkFlame’s comments. :-)

    It’s really motivating to hear someone mention Denno Coil not being too far away, although I doubt it very much, it’s a great boost for the moment. :-)

  3. Robert Rice Says:

    Great interview!

    (PS I looooove Denno Coil)

  4. PixelPolicy Says:

    It’s encouraging to see augmented reality broken down in such an analytical way, along with a fantastic and eye-catching interview. We just wrapped a week of augmented reality feature stories, but I might have to extend it by a bit to include some commentary on your very well-managed interview.

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