One of the cooler things about summer in Japan is the centuries-old tradition of swapping ghost stories. Some argue that the fear induced by a spine-chilling story can actually lower one's body temperature, making it a great way to deal with the summer heat. With this in mind as the summer heat sets in, here is "Severed Mouth Woman," a video produced by Buildup as part of their Bizarre Creatures of Japan series.
The video recounts the well-known story of the severed-mouth woman (kuchisake-onna), a malicious blade-wielding lady with a slit mouth (which she keeps hidden behind a surgical mask) who is bent on cutting open the mouths of strangers. Apparently a modern interpretation of an old Heian period legend, this tale sparked a mass panic in Japan in the late '70s and early '80s, as news reports circulated about a slit-mouthed woman terrorizing neighborhoods across the country. In this video, produced more than two decades after the hysteria passed, a former coroner comes forward with details about the severed-mouth woman's identity. Using old skeletal records, her head is reconstructed here.
On June 25, researchers at the Chiba Institute of Technology unveiled a working prototype of the Halluc II, a robotic vehicle with eight wheels and legs designed to drive or walk over rugged terrain. The agile robot, which the developers aim to put into practical use within the next five years, can move sideways, turn around in place and drive or walk over a wide range of obstacles. The researchers hope the robot's abilities will help out with rescue operations, and they would like to see Halluc II's technology put to use in transportation for the mobility-impaired.
The operator can put Halluc II into one of three modes depending on the terrain -- Vehicle, Insect or Animal mode. In Vehicle mode, Halluc II drives around on its eight wheels, and as it moves over uneven surfaces, each of the legs moves up and down in sync with the terrain to provide a smooth ride that keeps the cab at a constant height. In Insect mode, Halluc II does not use the wheels; instead, it walks with an insect-like gait, with its legs extended outward from the cab. In Animal mode, Halluc II keeps its legs directly beneath the cab while it walks, allowing it to pass through tight spaces. With wireless LAN capabilities and a system of cameras and sensors that monitor the distance to potential obstacles, Halluc II constantly assesses how best to adjust the position of its legs and wheels.
Halluc II's design calls for a total of 56 motors -- 2 for each leg joint (3 joints per leg), plus 1 for each wheel. Equipping each joint with 2 motors provides the legs with abundant power and allows for a smoother ride, say the researchers, who have devoted a great deal of attention to the cutting-edge multi-motor control system, a key component of Halluc II's design.
According to Mr. Yoshida, chief researcher at Chiba Institute of Technology's Future Robotics Technology Center (fuRo), the expensive price tag of high-precision motors poses some challenges, but as costs come down in the future, it will become easier to incorporate greater numbers of motors into drive systems. Halluc II appears to be a more advanced version of fuRo's 8-wheeled Hallucigenia01 robot created in 2003.
In designing Halluc II, the researchers have enlisted the help of renowned industrial designer Shunji Yamanaka, who has worked on everything from furniture and watches to robots and transportation. "Human beings have a large number of muscles, which allows for a great degree of freedom," says Yamanaka. "By incorporating greater redundancy into the vehicle's functions, we can give it more flexibility and speed and enable it to continue operating even when obstacles are in the way."
The Halluc II prototype is scheduled to go on display at Miraikan in Tokyo beginning August 1. At the exhibit, visitors will be allowed to operate the vehicle from a remote-control cockpit with a large screen showing real-time video shot from the onboard camera.
On July 24, Hitachi announced the development of a biometric cardless credit payment system, called "finger vein money," which allows shoppers to pay for purchases using only their fingertips. The company plans to begin field testing the finger vein money in September.
Finger vein money relies on Hitachi's finger vein authentication technology, which verifies a person's identity by reading the pattern of blood vessels in his or her fingers. These blood vessel patterns are unique to each individual, much like fingerprints or retinas, only they are hidden securely under the skin, making them all the more difficult to counterfeit. Hitachi's finger vein authentication technology is already being used to verify user identities for ATMs, door access control systems and computer log-in systems in Japan and elsewhere.
In the finger vein money system, consumers first register their finger vein pattern data with the credit card company. The data is then entered into a database along with the individual's credit account information. Later, when shoppers want to pay for something, they simply go to the cash register and place their finger in a vein reader, which uses infrared LEDs and a special camera to capture a detailed image of their vein structure. The image is converted into a readable format and sent to the database, where it is checked against the records on file. When the system verifies the identity of the shopper, the purchase is charged to the individual's credit account.
Hitachi's three-month field test, which is set to begin in September, involves 200 Hitachi employees volunteering to use finger vein money at the company cafeteria and shops in the Hitachi System Plaza Building located in Shin-Kawasaki. If all goes well, Hitachi -- who is conducting the test with the cooperation of major credit card company JCB -- plans to expand the trial system to all of its company buildings.
As a cardless payment system that promises the ultimate in convenience and security, finger vein money could help contribute to the disappearance of credit cards and all the anxieties associated with their loss and theft. When that day comes, we may only need to worry about losing our fingers.
As industrial equipment manufacturer Yaskawa Electric forces the MOTOMAN robot out of its comfort zone on the factory floor, we see it quickly acquiring new skills. First the robot developed the ability to sort mail. Now it has learned to play taiko drums.
On July 21, a team of four MOTOMAN machines -- two dual-armed MOTOMAN-DIA10 robots and two MOTOMAN-HP3 welding robots -- gave a special taiko performance at the nearly 400-year-old Kokura Gion Daiko Festival in Kitakyushu, which is famous for its traditional drumming competition. Organizers invited the robots to spice up the special opening ceremony for the competition's 60th anniversary. The robots -- the first ever to play taiko drums at the ancient festival -- were paraded through the crowd of spectators on a float while they performed.
Yaskawa worked with festival organizers for four months to teach the robots the proper rhythm, technique and choreography for the performance, which was seen as a success. Here's a short video.
On July 19, electronics giant NEC announced it has developed the world's first automated border control system that uses facial recognition technology capable of identifying people inside their automobiles. The system is already in operation at checkpoints on the Hong Kong - Shenzhen border.
Built around NEC's NeoFace biometric face recognition system, as well as NEC's electronic passport technology, the system is designed to boost the speed and efficiency of Hong Kong Immigration Department operations by allowing residents with microchipped national ID cards to remain in their vehicles while automated cameras verify their identities. Hong Kong residents aged 11 or over are required by law to carry a national ID card (HKID), and the recently issued "smart" IDs are embedded with chips that contain biometric and personal data.
The system works by first reading a vehicle’s license plate as it approaches a border gate. Because each vehicle in Hong Kong is registered to an individual driver, a simple automated database check determines who the driver should be. Next, the cameras scan the face of the driver and a database search is performed. If there is a match, the immigration process is completed and the gate opens, allowing the vehicle to pass through.
For now, NEC's setup only works with truck drivers, but coming improvements promise the ability to identify up to 8 passengers per vehicle. The cameras have been installed at 8 of the 40 border gates on a new road connecting Hong Kong and Shenzhen, with all 40 gates expected to be upgraded by August.
NEC eventually hopes to develop a face recognition system so quick and accurate that it would eliminate the need for fingerprinting.
Each year, farmers in the town of Inakadate in Aomori prefecture create works of crop art by growing a little purple and yellow-leafed kodaimai rice along with their local green-leafed tsugaru-roman variety. This year's creation -- a pair of grassy reproductions of famous woodblock prints from Hokusai's 36 Views of Mount Fuji -- has begun to appear (above). It will be visible until the rice is harvested in September.
The residents of Inakadate have been drawing pictures with rice since 1993. Here are a few crops from the recent past, found at this site.
While Inakadate is Japan's most famous rice paddy decorating town, a couple of other places in Japan have joined in the fun.
Yonezawa, Yamagata prefecture, 2007
Yonezawa, Yamagata prefecture, 2006
Nishio, Aichi prefecture (2005, 2006)
UPDATE (Oct 1, 2007): Check out photos of the 2007 harvest HERE.
If, over the past several years, you have had the privilege of joining the 3.3 million people that pass through Tokyo's Shinjuku station each day, you may have observed the work of Mr. Sato. A construction worker by trade, Sato uses strips of adhesive tape to create elaborate makeshift signs that help people navigate the temporary chaos of ongoing renovation work at Shinjuku station.
Sato's signs, which feature a peculiarly attractive gothic font, are the focus of a 15-minute documentary video put together by TrioFour, a small group of independent filmmakers. The video, which can be seen in two parts here (part 1, part 2), consists mainly of a long interview with Sato, entirely in Japanese (no subtitles), but it also shows lots of photos of his work from 2004. The photos below are still shots taken from the video.
With his work at Shinjuku complete, Sato has boarded the Yamanote line and taken his adhesive tape sign creation skills to the now-under-renovation Nippori station. TrioFour followed him there and is working on a new documentary.
In 1926, Kenjiro Takayanagi, known as the "father of Japanese television," transmitted the image of a katakana character (?) to a TV receiver built with a cathode ray tube, signaling the birth of the world's first all-electronic television. Last week, in a symbolic gesture over 80 years later, researchers from Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Burton Inc. and Hamamatsu Photonics K.K. displayed the same katakana character using a 3D projector that generates moving images in mid-air.
The 3D projector, which was first unveiled in February 2006 but has seen some recent improvements, uses focused laser beams to create flashpoint "pixels" in mid-air. The pixels are generated as the focused lasers heat the oxygen and nitrogen molecules floating in the air, causing them to spark in a phenomenon known as plasma emission. By rapidly moving these flashpoints in a controlled fashion, the projector creates a three-dimensional image that appears to float in empty space.
The projector's recent upgrades include an improved 3D scanning system that boosts laser accuracy, as well as a system of high-intensity solid-state femtosecond lasers recently developed by Hamamatsu Photonics. The new lasers, which unleash 100-billion-watt pulses (0.1-terawatt peak output) of light every 10-trillionths of a second (100 femtoseconds), improve image smoothness and boost the resolution to 1,000 pixels per second. In addition, image brightness and contrast can be controlled by regulating the number of pulses fired at each point in space.
The researchers say these improvements bring us one step closer to realizing the dream of 3DTV, but considering it took eight decades for Takayanagi's primitive 40-scan-line television to evolve into our present-day HDTV, we might have a while to wait.