TOKYO, Japan -- There are plenty of shows around the world where you can see great consumer devices. Plenty of shows that trot out the gadgets that will hit stores in the next few weeks or months, gadgets already being stamped out on pristine manufacturing lines somewhere. Though hugely important, these shows rarely offer a glimpse into anything beyond the very near future. If you want to look a little further down the road and get a preview of innovations that are years away -- or more -- there are few better places than Japan's CEATEC.
Though featuring plenty of near-term, incremental gadget announcements, Japanese manufacturers love to strut their stuff at CEATEC, showing fanciful concepts that may indeed never be seen again. Along with these far-out, conceptual devices comes the demand for new user interfaces. No self-respecting device of the future would be seen sporting a keyboard, and even the ubiquitous touch screen is of little use if your chosen device of tomorrow lacks a screen to touch. New challenges, new solutions.
Of the many and myriad oddball ways of interacting with devices seen on the show floor, one of the most intriguing is the so-called Ring Interface, a concept shown off by Japanese telecom giant NTT DoCoMo. DoCoMo often has some of the most forward-looking demonstrations on the floor. Unfortunately, they're often so conceptual that they come off feeling half-baked.
That admonishment can certainly be applied to the Ring Interface, a combination of devices providing virtual displays and a novel way of interacting with them. The user wears a modified Epson Moverio head-mounted display, the modification in this case being the crude application of a Logitech Webcam to the front. This makes the already nose-heavy glasses nearly unbearable to wear.
The other half of the equation is a ring, featuring a white plastic disk with a small antenna sticking out of it. The glasses, which provide a full field of view, create a virtual display on any flat surface that is held up -- regardless of size. (We tried it with a notepad and even a Post-it Note, with the system dynamically scaling the display appropriately.) Icons are shown on this virtual display that you can reach out and touch with your finger. The camera easily detects your index finger, but it struggles to detect touch. That's where the ring comes in. It's really only an accelerometer that registers when you tap or double-tap on something.
The result is a virtual touch screen that could be of any size and projected on any flat surface. That's a compelling prospect, especially for those of us whose pockets swell with ever-larger devices. While flexible OLED displays have for years promised to be large devices that you can easily fold up and tuck away, they'll never have anything on the portability of a blank sheet of A4 paper. That said, the implementation here was crude, often failing to track an extended index finger and requiring a solid tap to be registered. You'll be wanting a piece of heavy stock A4, then.
Alps Electric Co.'s vision of the future is a next-generation car interior, gleaming white and festooned with blue LEDs, of course. The system uses a variety of sensors and cameras to detect things like the driver's heart and respiratory rate, ostensibly detecting the onset of drowsiness but potentially also warning against the onset of road rage. Interestingly, the concept featured only a single physical button, for starting the engine.
The rest is managed by a ceiling-mounted laser projector and camera that work in concert. The laser projector draws icons on the white dashboard, telling you what to touch and where, while the camera detects your hand and gestures. Don't like the current music track? Wave it away. Not sure where to set your phone for the wireless charging unit to engage? The car can draw a big hand with a finger showing you exactly where to place it.
And then there was something rather less fanciful but still quite interesting from Toshiba: a new way of interacting with your television. No, there's no fancy gesture detection or anything of the sort here, this is more about your television's interface getting smarter about figuring out what you might want to watch.
Called Regza TimeOn, it's basically an onscreen overlay showing what people are talking about on Twitter. On the right you see real-time posted messages from folks you follow, while on the bottom you see a bar chart showing trends.
"Breaking Bad" finale on? Bill Nye dancing the cha-cha? Miley Cyrus grinding on a teddy bear? Your TV will tell you of such moments and let you watch them live with the touch of a button. But, it goes beyond that. The system, and a companion mobile app, can tap into the company's DVRs to take you straight to such must-watch moments, jumping into individual recordings to the precise moments the antics in question began.
Of the bunch, we figure Toshiba's is the most likely to see the light of day any time in the near future. Alps Electric's fancy cockpit and NTT DoCoMo's Ring Interface, however, likely never will -- at least not as they exist today. Still, they point to an interesting future that obviates discrete buttons and display panels in favor of as-needed virtual displays and physical gestures. That these crude yet functional concepts exist today is encouraging, though we can't help fearing they may never see the light of day again.