Interview with Dr. Masahiko Inami

We catch up with Professor Masahiko Inami (@drinami), chair of SIGGRAPH Asia’s Emerging Technologies program this year to talk about what are some of the exciting inventions that might be hitting mainstream soon.

Tells us more about the Emerging Technologies program you’ve put together for SIGGRAPH Asia this year. 

We had 59 submissions, and in the end, we chose 24. The submissions were from 15 countries. We didn’t mind whether it was high or low technology, but we looked for the quality of experience, whether it is new or its novel. That were the two important criteria, whether we went like, “This is really amazing” or “This is really new”.

You’ve been helping put together exhibitions on Emerging Technologies for some years now. How has it evolved over the years?

I have contributed to SIGGRAPH since 1997 and the variety of emerging technologies has expanded over the years. Back then, we needed to use very expensive graphic work stations and mechanics, so not many people wanted to develop emerging technologies. But over the last 5 to 10 years, we now have rapid prototyping techniques, so not only those with engineering background but also designers can contribute to emerging technologies. Technology is now cheap and accessible, and people have more ideas too.

What are some of the highlights?

One is the “Flying Head” helicopter (Keita Higuchi and Jun Rekimoto from The University of Tokyo). It is indicative of future of technology. Robots can do what you don’t want to do, so such kind of technologies enhances what you really want. It is is sort of an augmentation or enhancement of yourself, and I think technology should focus on that.

“Second Surface” (Shunichi Kasahara from MIT Media Lab and Sony Corporation, and  Valentin Heun, Austin Lee, and Hiroshi Ishii from MIT Media Lab) is a form of augmented reality that is very useful. This one augments the environment while “Flying Head” augments yourself.

Can you talk about this year’s program theme “Play”. On the website, you say that “Play is also recognised as one of the characteristic of Asian researchers on interactive techniques”. What do you mean by that?

Asian engineers usually enjoy the technology itself, they are not just focusing on whether something is high-technology or not. Like the helicopter in “Flying Head” is not very high-technology, but combining it with a head display, you expand the experience, allowing users to play with technology. 

Another example is “ASIBO” (by Yuichiro Katsumoto of Keio-NUS CUTE Center and Masa Inakage of Keio University Graduate School of Media Design). The technology is very simple and it was invented because there was no such gadget for the inventor to play with so he developed it himself.

What are some emerging technologies to watch in the years to come?

SIGGRAPH is focusing on two areas: computer graphics and interactive techniques. Computer graphics is only one possibility which connects the virtual world with the real world through display, and I think the recent trend of emerging technologies is allowing us to connect to the virtual world with multi-modal experiences such as smell and tactility. 

Multi-modal experiences experience is very important. How do you know if you’re in a dream or the real world? Can you touch your face? Touch is a real multi-modal sensation that allows you to feel what is really real. I think a visual and auditory world is important, but it’s also quite a ghostly experience. You can see and hear, but you cannot touch, that is why I think it is very important to develop multi-modal experience.

Are you bored with reality? What drives your research on multi-modal experience and augmented reality?

I want to break the barrier between dreams and reality. If we can easily achieve our imagination then we can enjoy a lot of interesting ideas, and we can even change the world. That is my future vision.

You are famous for inventing the “Optical Camouflage”, a technology inspired by the manga Ghost in the Shell. Where do you usually get your ideas for inventing things that are yet to exist?

The idea itself is something that I come up from my brain, and sometimes though discussing with others. However, I am strongly inspired by science fiction movie and especially Japanese comics and anime. 

When I did my PhD, one of the assistant professors strongly recommended me to read Ghost in the Shell. He said this is the textbook of this lab, and it was impressive and really expanded my imagination. 

In a way, I see my work as making science fiction come to reality.

What are some challenges to emerging technologies going mainstream?

Sometimes timing is important. Emerging technologies is like very nice wine. If you drink it suddenly, you feel the wine is very bitter, but if you keep it for ten years, it tastes better with time.

Also, emerging technologies are usually not very sophisticated and robust technology when they first appear. Augmented reality was invented way back in 1968, but at that time it needed very large computers and graphic workstations, and we didn’t have smart phones and a 3G connection. Now we an easily buy a small LCD or a smartphone to implement the technology. So you have to wait for an emerging technology to enter the mass market before it becomes a commodity. 

I have tried many times to commercialise my technology, but sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it doesn’t, even though I show the same technology. So it really depends.

What are you currently working on?

I am collaborating with a brain researcher to find out more about substitutional reality. For instance, you can experience what you felt like 15 minutes ago using technology. It is very exciting. This is still very basic research.

You’ve talked about how you wanted to be a magician when you were young and then you discovered how science was like magic. What is the greatest trick/invention you hope to pull off in your career?

Teleportation. Real teleportation is difficult but the experience of teleportation, called telepresence, where you believe you are somewhere else — it might be possible!

Masahiko Inami

Masahiko INAMI is a professor at KEIO Media Design. He is also directing JST ERATO Igarashi Design Interface Project as a group leader. He received his Ph.D. from department of engineering, the University of Tokyo in March, 1999. His research interest is in Interactive Technique, Physical Media, Robotics and Entertainment Technology. 

Siggraph Asia 2012

SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques) is an annual conference on computer graphics convened by the ACM SIGGRAPH organization since 1974.

Both a conference and a trade exhibition, SIGGRAPH Asia attracts the most respected technical and creative people from all over the world. See, meet, and interact with the international computer graphics and interactive techniques community and witness the astounding advancements of computer graphics technologies, where stellar ideas blend with boundless artistry.