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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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New Year, New Tech

Jan. 7, 2016

In The Focus, we take a look at what could be trending in Japan in 2016, as chosen by ordinary people. Among the upcoming topics people say they're interested in are money matters, mobile technology and tourism-related issues. But first, we have some cutting-edge car developments.

Mercedes Benz unveiled its futuristic electric car shaped like a capsule. The vehicle can drive itself while keeping passengers connected with the world outside the car. Images of the scenery are displayed on touch-screen display panels on the doors. The car can also be piloted by a human.

The arrival of autonomous driving is transforming the very idea of cars. In Japan, a self-driving vehicle that can handle congested expressways will also be launched.

Car manufacturers are racing to dominate the driverless car market. But one question remains: Will these vehicles actually be popular?

Another field that's attracting attention is machine translation. One company showed off a megaphone with built-in software that translates spoken Japanese into English.

As the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics approach, a push is underway for more research and development of automatic interpretation and translation technology.

Software on a tablet scans Japanese writing on signs and similar objects, then displays the English translation.

In the financial sector, some companies are also using new forms of IT. This combination of finance and technology is called FinTech.

The Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki Prefecture is also getting in on the act. They're now using a technology that allows patrons to make purchases without opening their wallets.

Users receive pre-purchase points and spend them at the park using fingerprint recognition.

A company spokesperson explains the benefit: "Sometimes lines form at the register, but now purchases can be processed quickly. I think people can sense how convenient the system is."

Another field that’s set to explode this year is virtual reality. VR artificially creates sensory experiences.

Travel company HIS is using virtual reality to sell vacations. A headset allows users to experience their destination beforehand. Two images on a screen become a single 3D view when seen through the VR headset.

One woman trying out a virtual trip said she enjoyed the experience: "It felt like I was actually there because I could see the world in 360 degrees."

A major gaming company has announced plans to sell VR goggles in the first half of the year. 2016 is being called the start of the virtual reality era.

VR is even used in places like a Municipal Zoo in Shunan City, Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Visitors receive 12 cards at the entrance. On the cards, the animals seem to come to life. Visitors need to download an app onto their smartphones and then scan the cards. Virtual versions of the animals then pop up onto the screen.

Animal-eye views are also part of the package -- people can also experience the scenery from a giraffe’s perspective, for example. It’s a new type of zoo experience.

One visitor felt the VR experience added to her zoo visit: "It’s good. It allows visitors to get a feel for the animals, even when they’re not moving or are too far away to see easily."

The service was launched last September. Since then, the zoo has seen a 10 percent increase in visitors, although they can’t confirm this is from the app.

We looked at one of the new VR headsets in the studio. It's loaded with software that offers a virtual view of Hawaii and is being used by a travel agency as part of a sales campaign targeting the islands. Aki Shibuya tried it out.

Aki Shibuya: Wow -- I wanted to try this. I'm in a car and there's someone sitting next to me. I can see the blue sky. It's amazing, like I'm almost there.

Sho Beppu: So, Yuko -- is 2016 the start of the virtual reality era?

Yuko Fukushima: Yes, that's what experts say, because a lot of companies are working in the area. Samsung came out with a virtual reality headset at the end of last year. Companies planning to release gadgets this year include Sony, Facebook-owned Oculus and HTC -- the Chinese mobile phone maker.

Shibuya: Can you say the virtual reality market will really expand?

Fukushima: Well, experts say that more needs to be done to expand the VR market. Headsets are still a bit pricey. The one Oculus unveiled this month at the CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, costs around $600. And you need about a $900 computer to drive it. They're also saying the content market needs to grow -- what to show on virtual reality headsets, in other words. Right now, the first growth market is games. Sony's headset will be used for PlayStation games. That's because there aren't many cameras that can shoot content in 360 degrees. And those cameras are expensive. So experts say that for now, only game makers have the kind of money that's needed to create content for VR headsets.

Beppu: What economic impact can we expect from the new technologies?

Fukushima: One leading Silicon Valley based VR consulting firm says the market could expand ten times from this year. They say it'll be a $30-billion market by 2020. The company says the situation now resembles what it was like with the smartphone market before the iPhone came out.

Beppu: Some of the technologies in the report seemed very useful, but I didn't think some others were too necessary. Which ones do you think will survive the competition?

Fukushima: Yes -- I guess right now there are various technologies coming on the market. Some will survive, others will die out. It's up to consumers which technologies will win out.