TOKYO: It makes for a jabber-filled downtown stroll -- getting deluged by chatter over earphones from some 1,200 tiny computer chips embedded in lampposts, subway-station ceilings and road cement, beaming maps, tidbits of history and store guides.
The 1 billion yen (US$8.7 million) Japanese government-backed Tokyo Ubiquitous Technology Project spans several blocks of the Ginza district, and similar experimental efforts are under way in several other spots nationwide.
University of Tokyo professor Ken Sakamura says the effort gives a glimpse into the future, when chips on objects and places will become widespread so government offices and private businesses will use them to zip information to passers-by.
“This project is to build an infrastructure for the 21st Century,” Sakamura said during a demonstration tour Monday.
Reporters strolled around the Ginza shopping district, dangling from necks special portable devices with a screen and earphones but no keyboard.
Everytime we passed by a computer chip, say, at a store or at a showroom, an electronic voice began narrating an explanation.
Stand in front of Mitsukoshi Department Store, and a voice runs down how the statue of a lion in front of the building has long been its trademark.
Cross the street to Nissan Motor Co.’s showroom, and the handheld has automatically switched from receiving information from the chip at the store to a chip at the showroom, and began showing a video of a woman talking.
“Welcome to Nissan Ginza gallery,” she says.
Pushing some buttons on the device makes an electronic map, a photo about a landmark’s history, or guide to a nearby clinic pop up on the screen.
American cities have expressed interest in the technology, Sakamura said, while refusing to disclose the names of the U.S. cities yet.
Japan is serious about such project as a rapidly aging society likely to need help to guide the elderly, the blind and the handicapped through city streets, Sakamura said.
Japan also sees potential in the service, now available in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean, to help foreign tourists get around, he said.
Unlike Netsurfing on laptops or mobile phones, the information that comes is automatic and requires no button-pushing, Sakamura says.
The Ginza project uses chips that relay wireless information and RFID, or radio frequency identification, chips, whose information can be bounced back and read if the portable device, which emits radio waves, is brought within inches of the chip.
The RFID chips widespread today can’t be updated. But the chips in Sakamura’s project relay information that’s constantly updated in computer servers. Next year, he hopes to expand the Ginza project to 10,000 chips.
Sakamura acknowledged the chips could be used for “Big Brother” monitoring, but denied his research had such intentions, vowing: “We do not put tags on people.”