Japan’s ‘touchless economy’ set for growth as pandemic era promotes use of sensors

Companies are speeding up development of products that recognise faces and hand signals

HANGZHOU, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 01:  A customer purchases goods via Alipay which could collect money through recognizing customers' identity at KFC's KPRO restaurant on September 1, 2017 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province of China. Alipay uses face recognition system to collect money when customers take commodities to pass through a payment gateway.  (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
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In a pandemic where people are fearful of touching surfaces, some Japanese companies are speeding up the development of products that mean consumers don’t have to use their fingers.

Already dubbed the “touchless economy”, examples include multinational NEC’s security panels that can recognise people even if they wear masks, preventing face-touching to remove them.

Lift manufacturer Fujitec wants passengers to select floors using only hand signals, while sensor maker Optex plans a similar concept for opening doors. Toshiba Tec, a subsidiary of Toshiba, wants to banish fingerprint-laden restaurant menus to the past with gesture-sensing, projected menus.

The global sensor industry has surged in growth due to the smartphone boom, and is one that analysts say will experience a second wave as we enter the Internet of Things era.

NEC’s security panels work by comparing the exposed part of a person’s face against an original image, with the software looking for similarities. AI and deep learning are part of NEC’s face recognition technology, which is still being perfected.

Fujitec has an optional feature allowing people using lifts to hold their hands near infrared sensors to select floors, rather than touching buttons on panels. It planned to sell these to medical facilities or pharmaceutical factories where hygiene conditions are strictly controlled, but the pandemic has expanded the company’s range of potential customers.

Toshiba Tec has developed technology allowing diners to choose meals by projecting menu options on a tabletop and using sensors to take their orders. Originally designed to free up table space by getting rid of the need for paper menus or tablets, they remove the need to touch either.

However, Alan Casey, a partner at consultancy Prophet, who has over 20 years of experience working in Japan and with Japanese companies, believes the “introspective” nature of the country often means that certain products become hugely successful there but fail to replicate this globally.

“This is often due to differing standards or alignment with Japanese preferences,” explains Mr Casey, who is now based in Hong Kong.

“While Japan often has an early adoption of technology, Japanese companies don’t sustain global leadership or achieve the full scale of potential,” he adds. Docomo’s i-mode (a mobile internet that launched in 1999); JR East’s contactless Suica smart card; Sony’s Mini-Disc format, and even Toto toilets are all examples of technologies that were ahead of their time but which failed to gain global adoption, he says.

These sensors detect and measure quantities such as light, heat, motion and pressure. Most people have an everyday encounter with sensors through their smartphones, which contain CMOS sensors that convert light into digital images for photography. Sony has been a huge beneficiary of this, controlling more than half of the global market for CMOS sensors.

Manuel Tagliavini, principal analyst of MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) and sensors at Omdia, a research company focused on the tech sector, says the sensors industry is spread globally, with established suppliers between the US and Europe but that “aggressive” competition is growing in the Asia Pacific region.

He cites Sony, South Korea’s Samsung, China’s Omnivision, US firm ON Semiconductor and Europe’s AMS and STMicroelectronics as examples of major players in the market.

The revenue generated by MEMS and sensors was almost $29 billion (Dh106.5bn) for 2018, and was set to grow at about 5-7 per cent last year. He says he has recently seen an acceleration in the deployment of sensors.

The sensor business is set to grow, with the incipient Internet of Things (IoT), greater sensor deployment in smartphones and wearables and the development of ‘smart cars’.

"While Japan often has an early adoption of technology, Japanese companies don't sustain global leadership,"

Sensors are not new in the automotive industry, says Richard Dixon, senior analyst at IHS Markit, a data and information services firm. “But it’s true their importance grows.”

The automotive sensor market was worth about $6bn last year, Mr Dixon says. And the number of these devices will grow as vehicles become electric and move slowly towards a level of autonomy, he says, adding that there are well over 30 different types of sensing device, measuring speed and distances, among other things. For the consumer, this means vehicles could become more comfortable, greener, and safer.

In terms of IoT, one of the first consumer products was LG’s internet-connected refrigerator released in 2000. It could sense shelf contents and keep an eye on expiration dates, and included an MP3 player, but retailed at $20,000. Over the years, sensors have become cheaper and internet-connected devices have become more affordable. With the promise of vastly increased internet speeds, 5G could herald the IoT economy.

“The increased bandwidth but even more the reduced latency of [5G] will accelerate the proliferation of connected devices worldwide,” says Mr Tagliavini, citing assisted and autonomous driving cars as major beneficiaries as reduced latency allows for real-time sensing, computation and reaction.

People stand in front of facial recognition software before entering the Icon Siam luxury shopping mall as it reopened after restrictions to halt the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus were lifted in Bangkok on May 17, 2020.  / AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA

In mid-May, Sony announced the development of its first image sensor with an integrated AI processor which can perform tasks such as reading the size of crowds, scanning bar codes and monitoring driver drowsiness. The AI processor is stacked on an image-sensor, allowing it to process data without sending it to the cloud.

With sensors as the footsoldiers gauging the environment, 5G the carrier, and AI being the brain to process data gathered, IoT might be the next big thing, although privacy and surveillance concerns will shadow its development.

But the development of the “touchless economy” is spreading worldwide.

“Covid-19 is causing this direction,” says Mr Tagliavini. “Voice assistants, touchless, image recognition, they are accelerating now. It’s already started worldwide, not just in Japan.”