Tokyo technology start-ups offer devices and gadgets
- 16 March 2014
- From the section Technology
Tokyo's technology start-up scene is beginning to take off. But can the Japanese capital rival California's Silicon Valley?
Imagine struggling to catch a waiter's eye to pay your restaurant bill.
How about using your finger to draw a currency symbol in the air and write out a sum to transfer, then heading home, safe in the knowledge you've paid for your meal.
This futuristic-sounding technique is the premise of Japanese start-up Logbar, which has manufactured the "Ring".
This silver band, worn on the index finger, uses a Bluetooth wireless signal to connect with the user's smartphone, which then sends the payment electronically.
It will be able to control any device linked to the internet, potentially letting someone switch on a TV or a light simply by pointing, and mass production will begin next month.
The idea followed the success of a Tokyo bar set up by Logbar chief executive Takuro Yoshida, which enabled customers to order via iPads, design their own drinks, see other orders and receive recommendations.
"We noticed that people were looking for a new way to communicate, so we created Ring," he says.
Japan's relatively small size made it easier to find engineers and factories to make the product, he adds.
And, inspired by the importance placed on fashion locally, he made the device as "cool and fashionable" as possible.
Yet firms such as Logbar remain unusual in Japan. The conservative culture means graduates aspire to so called "salarymen" jobs, which more or less provide guaranteed employment until retirement.
The start-up scene is so far largely centred around design, developing a new wave of "wearable technologies", combining Japanese engineering with a fashionable and often quirky edge.
For example Necomimi - a pair of wearable cat-like ears that claim to track your brain waves and move based on your thoughts - originated here.
Invented by the Tokyo-based Neurowear team, the ears come on a headband that contains a microchip, and made Time magazine's list of 50 best inventions in 2011.
A software engineer, Mr Akiba, says this kind of tech is typical in Japan, which even has a saying that if it's "kawaii" - or cute - then its existence is justified, and it doesn't need any other purpose.
Japanese people "kind of appreciate" having a lot of "really sophisticated technology" that serves no real purpose, he says.
In contrast, Japanese start-up Telepathy has a serious purpose, making a headset that connects to the user's smartphone by wireless and distributes live images of what they see or hear.
Founded by software engineer Takahito Iguchi in January 2013, it aims to help communications evolve.
Frequently described as a competitor to Google Glass, the headset holds a camera and a display screen in front of one eye.
Secured to the head via earphones which deliver sound, users can also receive images or check messages on social networks.
It also has a "cute" element, where users can select a "manga" (cartoon) character as their profile picture.
Mr Iguchi believes the product, which is intended to be sold in the US this year and globally in 2015, will be like a new type of phone.
Both Logbar and Telepathy credit Japan's skilled engineers for their ability to design and manufacture highly functional products.
But they have both opened US offices, with Telepathy basing its core team in California's Sunnyvale and saying Silicon Valley is "the centre of the world for software and marketing".
Mr Iguchi says he has been able to "utilise the best parts from Japan and the US".
However, in Japan few engineers are willing to commit to new ideas, and the Japanese hardware industry overall "tends to lack creativity and edginess", he adds.
The Japanese start-up scene is not just about devices, though, as mobile app iQon lets people browse a wide variety of clothes from different stores to create looks.
"Stylists" can then share their combinations with the network.
If someone likes an item, they can click and buy it, taking them directly to the retailer's website. IQon then earns a commission from the sale.
Founder Yuki Kanayama used to run Yahoo Japan's fashion and lifestyle section, but left to "live my own life".
However, he's had trouble attracting staff to join him.
"Japanese people don't want to be different from others; they want to work for Sony, Toyota and Google, instead of start-ups.
"The number of entrepreneurs is too small in Japan," he says.