Akihabara was once Japan’s largest electronics district, and it is now considered sacred ground for the “otaku” culture.
Among fans of “2.5D” characters, a popular way of referring to the objects of their affections is “wife.” Now, an IoT firm based in Akihabara is launching a new “2.5D wife” character that descends from cyberspace into user’s homes. Her name is Hikari Azuma.
Gatebox is an indoor communication robot that features the holographic rendition of this character, and it stands poised to make otakus’ dreams reality.
We sat down with Minori Takechi, CEO of Vincl, the company developing this product, and learned about what it is the company wants to achieve with Gatebox, as well as the way past failures have turned into a form of driving energy for them.
Gatebox throws down the gauntlet to the IoT industry
—— A visit to the Gatebox website shows us a very intriguing product that is somewhere between reality and unreality. What was the original impetus for fusing IoT technology with “charm?”
Minori Takechi: The initial impetus was simple: “Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to live with Hatsune Miku?”
—— In other words…?
Takechi: We started the company around a smartphone accessory. Right around when mass production and sale of the first run of the product had ended, we decided that if we were going to keep at it, we wanted to do something more fun for our next project. Put further, I had some personal misgivings about the current IoT industry, so I wanted to use the experience of that first year of the company to do something to shake up the field and make IoT more interesting.
I thought to myself: “What is it I am most crazy about right now? What is it that always soothes my worries and gives me strength?” I realized it was anime, manga, and 2.5D-style characters like Hatsune Miku. If I could live with them not inside the screen, but in everyday life, It might make things more fun and interesting.
—— You say you have some misgivings about the IoT sector. What exactly do you not like?
Takechi: I think the industry as a whole falls into two patterns. The first is products controlled with a smartphone, and the second is products that are automated and do something for you. What is the outcome of this, then? Well, smartphone-linked products have to ultimately be controlled by the users, while fully-automated ones are kind of creepy and would lead to an inorganic, cold way of life. It seems like all of the items out there piggyback on the Western trend of highly polished and designed products, and everything is too cool and sharp. It’s boring.
—— I see. While we feel that the various IoT players are caving out their own niches, it can certainly be said that Gatebox’s product is simultaneously a communication robot and a virtual reality character, so in that sense, it is a departure from the current conversation being had in IoT.
By the way, did you plan to use holographic renderings from the get-go?
Takechi: Yes, exactly. Even if we tried to bring VR into everyday life, and while some people think this can be achieved through head-mounted displays, actually wearing one of those every day is no mean feat. It’s doubtful that people would use a display like that each and every day. I wanted to create the experience of hanging out with a character, watching TV together, eating meals together, et cetera, so projecting the character onto a screen or using a head-mount is out of the question.
In terms of hologram, Hatsune Miku has already performed a live show in that fashion, and there are past usage examples of holograms in real-world contexts, so I figured that could be used to create, to some extent, the feeling of “presence.”
—— In other words, you are building out the product from a concept-first approach, rather than around a piece of technology.
Takechi: Exactly. We feel that IoT holograms are nothing more than a technique to achieve this experience we are trying to provide. To put it bluntly, as long as the technology creates the feeling of the character’s presence, we aren’t concerned with how it is achieved. We want to really capture that feeling of, say, watching TV together and feeling that she is there next to you, even if you aren’t directly looking at her.
—— If this succeeds, the product will go down in history alongside Hikari Azuma. As an outsider, this seems like it would pose many huge technical hurdles. What have you found, as an engineer, to be difficult to implement?
Takechi: Making hologram projection appear more realistic is tricky. We feel that our challenges in this regard are a long-term thing, so we plan to keep tweaking and adjusting to get the best results. In recent terms, what has been the biggest challenge is the communicative aspect. Speech recognition is not perfect, so it sometimes picks things up incorrectly.
We are planning on deploying a range of sensing and capturing technologies that go beyond just speech recognition, such as detecting a hand wave, facial expressions, and gestures. Humans, too, get 70% of their information from visual cues, so we feel that increasing the imaging recognition technology of the product would create an experience closer to human cognition. We are currently experimenting to see how far the program can recognize cues without relying on speech.
Failure as a springboard for a new challenge
—— Gatebox represents Vincl’s second project. Is development proceeding with the same team as that used during the days you made smartphone accessories?
Takechi: Yes. At the time, we had just two members, so we’ve expanded our roster. I was in charge of web design, and the other member engineered the web software. We lacked key members to handle the hardware end.
—— In other words, two years ago, when you worked on mass production and sale of your past product, you went through all of the challenges of a hardware startup with just the two of you?
Takechi: We didn’t do everything entirely alone. We had no experience in hardware, so we didn’t know how to go about it. We didn’t know how much things would cost, nor what risks awaited us. Everything was very uncertain.
In terms of mass production, we were introduced to someone with expertise in that area who externally advised us on how to lead the process. So things proceeded in collaboration with that advisor.
—— What about issues you ran into precisely because of a lack of advance knowledge?
Takechi: It took a huge amount of time and money to make improvements, such as when rebuilding circuit boards and chipsets. The next issue was the timing around molds. With respect to the first, I come from software engineering, where the mantra of “release early and often” is commonplace — just make a prototype, release it, and then worry about updating It. That simply does not work with hardware. Unless your components are perfect, you cannot mass produce them. There is a fundamentally different thought process.
—— So you worked as two members up until the mass production and sales process. Now you’re drawing on that past success with Gatebox?
Takechi: To be honest, I don’t think of it as a success — it was a failure. We generated no revenue and, in that sense, failed as a company. All that remained were the lessons we learned from that. The physical product we created was AYATORI, a smartphone accessory. You save your preferences and interests in the app and, when people with similar interests to yours are in the vicinity, the accessory glows.
This came out of my own personality: I am not the best at approaching people, so I wanted to meet people with similar interests. However, this kind of network only works if lots of people have the AYATORI device, so it ended up having limited use. Plus, each contains a chipset, so the single price for one was much higher than necessary. Keeping the cost reasonable as a hardware startup was a major challenge.
—— With Gatebox, there is already a clear demand among users for “living with my 2.5D wife,” so do you think it will sell well even if it is not economically priced?
Takechi: That’s right. Since we’re a startup, I feel it’s incumbent on us to dream big. That’s the most important thing. In the first place, products made by hardware startups are usually expensive. The fact that people are willing to buy these even in spite of that shows us that these products answer users’ long-held aspirations. Going forward, we want to keep creating those kinds of exciting products, the kind people everywhere will be amazed to handle.
The drive to see a project through
—— Did you pursue fundraising for Gatebox based on your experience with AYATORI? Any tips to share?
Takechi: We raised 20M JPY when launching the project. We had a relationship with the investor for a year before that offer was made. We didn’t know what we would build at the time, but he was impressed with the way we had, in the year prior, resolved to follow through with AYATORI even though it did not prove financially successful.
This is not exactly a “tip,” but bringing up the subject of funding right away is no good. Unless you’ve known someone for a long time or they know about your work, launching into talk of funding right away is almost out of the question.
—— In other words, the fact that you had seen a past project through to the end proved instrumental in the investor’s decision. Where do you get the energy to keep driving on?
Takechi: I think it’s because I feel that, if we’re going to go the trouble of doing all of this, we had better make something impressive. Besides, I don’t have a family or pride at stake, so maybe I have nothing to lose and can just go for it.
To put it in a more extreme way, since I’m single, I don’t need a stable income to feed a family. Before starting the company, I was unemployed for six months, in fact. My attitude is fundamentally unchanged from that time. When I was unemployed, I was obsessed with anime, and now I’m obsessed with my work. The attitude is the same — the only thing that’s changed is what I’m working on.
—— So you are bold and frank about taking on new challenges. To wrap up, do you have any suggestions for what the ecosystem surrounding hardware startups can do to promote that kind of tireless innovation?
Takechi: Based on our failure with AYATORI, I think truly grand, perhaps grandiose, products should succeed. With hardware, people tend to develop ideas based on what the hardware “can do,” but no one will support a pithy idea based on the expectations of current hardware. While it depends on how you pitch the product, most startups of that nature tend to fail to raise funding, so they can never mass-produce the product.
If that thinking becomes commonplace, the industry as we know It will wither away, so I want to see an ecosystem where people who successfully bring the biggest, boldest projects to life wind up financially successful. That would cement the success of those products.
—— We certainly hope that thinking becomes more widespread. Thank you for your time!
While one key to success lies in bringing to market products that people have always needed yet have failed to materialize, one thing that makes a startup a startup is taking on challenges no one else has dared to.
There are many hurdles to making such a journey a reality, so those that try often fail. And yet, what we at BRAIN PORTAL learned through this interview and Vincl’s daring attempt at a large-scale project after previous failure is this: only those companies bold enough to bridge that gap and go where others dare not tread are in a position to deliver moving, emotional experiences to consumers.
We hope that such boldness continues to appear elsewhere and, in so doing, attracts supporters to cheer on these new causes. In this way, Japanese craftsmanship will become even brighter.