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Getting Your Body (And Soul) Wired: Japan's New Touch Technologies

(this article first appeared in the december 12, 2005 issue of newsweek international)

In his gadget-filled office at Tokyo Medical and Dental University, Prof. Kohji Mitsubayashi tells a visitor to touch a transmitter with one hand and a receiver with another. Voila! A jaunty TV jingle blares from a pair of attached speakers. Surprised, the visitor releases both gadgets, and the music stops. The simplicity and strangeness of becoming a human circuit -- with electrical signals coursing through one's body from fingertip to fingertip -- is so fascinating that visitors usually repeat the act. "Fun, isn't it?" says Mitsubayashi, grinning.

Not just fun. Japan is abuzz over the potential of such body-based technology as the ultimate wireless networking tool. A string of Japanese companies are experimenting with systems that use the human body to conduct electricity -- some manipulating weak currents that pass through the skin itself (as body-fat scales do), others taking advantage of electrical fields on the surface of the body. Associated products are on the way. The question is whether this represents a paradigm shift in the way we think about wires.

Sending electrical signals through the body has several advantages over existing wireless systems like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. For one thing, it's intuitive by nature and doesn't require complicated setup. It is also more secure because the signals can only be intercepted through touch, unlike Bluetooth, which produces stray signals. Last year Matsushita Electric Works released an electric scale, the first appliance based on so-called touch technology. Food trays were embedded with tiny chips that, when touched by a salesclerk, transmitted the price per gram through his or her fingers to a wristwatchlike device. As the clerk weighed the salad, the scale used that data to compute the price of the order.

Telecom giant NTT has gone one step further, developing devices that create tiny electric fields on the surface of the skin. That means, for instance, that someone wearing a wireless earpiece could use a cell phone that's stashed in his pocket, rather than held in hand (similar to Bluetooth earpieces now). Mitsubayashi and Kaiser Technologies, a small venture in Kanagawa, south of Tokyo, have developed similar technology that they claim is much cheaper. Both systems boast high bandwidth, enough to handle moving pictures.

Further possible applications abound. NTT has made a protoype of a medicine bottle that, when picked up, prompts a personal digital assistant in your purse to beep a warning about possible side effects. Another device, which could be mounted on a wristwatch or a cell phone, could open doors automatically by transmitting an ID code through the skin to a receiver embedded in the doorknob.

Why aren't companies already churning out these gee-whiz gadgets? One major reason is that Japan already boasts remarkably convenient technology. For instance, touch technology could enable ticket gates at train stations that, with one flick of a finger, automatically charge a passenger's credit or debit card. But many Japanese already carry radio-frequency ID cards that allow them fast, cashless entry. The real killer app for such technologies may be in the medical industry, says Mitsubayashi. A patient who needs constant monitoring is often connected to devices with multiple, uncomfortable cables. With touch technology, he could wear a sensor on his finger and have a small terminal in his pajama pocket, which could collect data (body temperature, heart rate, etc.) without all the wires. "This can liberate people with health problems," says Mitsubayashi, who's working with interested companies in the field. "In an aging society, it's very important." Not to mention very cool.

(c) 2005 newsweek, inc.
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