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Virtuosity, coming to mobiles

Tokyo, March 29 (Reuters): A mobile phone that can communicate sight, touch, smell, taste and emotion might sound fantastical, but that is exactly what NTT DoCoMo Inc’s chief technology officer aims to develop.

“Right now, our mobile phones can relay voice and images, but we need to strengthen our research into the communication of the rest of the five senses,” Kota Kinoshita said.

“Our president, Keiji Tachikawa, dreams of using phones to beam things physically. That may not be possible, but I think we will eventually be able to offer users a virtual experience like that.”

Kinoshita heads the largest Japanese mobile phone operator’s research and development efforts, which take place in a sprawling 692,100 sq. ft facility known as Yokosuka Research Park (YRP), about 90 minutes southeast of Tokyo.

DoCoMo, whose name is a play on the Japanese word for “anywhere”, categorises its R&D efforts into “research”, defined as long-term projects and the pursuit of raw ideas, and “development”, projects that are closer to production.

The two arms together receive a budget equivalent to 3 per cent of DoCoMo’s revenues, but the research arm gets priority.

Developers must stay disciplined as they work on medium- to short-term projects such as HSDPA (high speed downlink packet access), a technology provides users with 10 times the speed of the current 3G (third-generation) networks with triple the efficiency.

DoCoMo’s vision, as portrayed in its promotional film Vision 2010, is one in which business executives conduct international conference calls on big screens with simultaneous interpretation, small screens on shirt sleeves and car windows replace cell phones, and children can learn pottery virtually with special wireless gloves that recreate touch.

Researchers are left to their own devices, although they might see their ideas cut short after three years if the company determines there is no potential.

This has given birth to some offbeat ideas such as a phone that can pick up what a user is saying without vocalising words. Sensors placed on the upper lip, cheek and chin are meant to read jaw movements and relay the message via an electronic voice.

So far, the three-year-old experiment allows the reading only of Japanese vowels. Kinoshita — who said the technology could have applications for handicapped people or those working in noisy environments such as construction sites — added that the company would decide soon on whether to continue the experiment.

In another project, researchers are testing the possibility of what they call “three-dimensional sound”.

Kinoshita envisions a future in which mobiles can produce sounds that appear to come from different directions, so a businessman could be on a three-way conference call via mobile phone and the other participants’ voices, to avoid mix-ups, would appear to come from two different directions.

Kinoshita believes commercialisation of this product might be possible in about two years.

“We’ve pretty much solved three-dimensional sound, so the next step is three-dimensional images,” said Kinoshita.

“I don’t know what the timing will be, but I want users to be able to project an image from their phones and feel like they can touch it. If only we can recreate smell and taste too. That would be the ultimate,” he added.

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