Relax And Chat on the Pillow Phone

Japanese mobile company Willcom have launched a new winter campaign that allows users to put their heads down and really relax while they have a conversation, on a pillow phone.


The network provider is giving away the “dare to demo pillow” (meaning “with anyone”) headsets free to those who sign up to their services throughout the month of December. The pillows come in a range of colors and allow users to rest their heads while chatting by plugging their handsets in. The star shaped pillows have built in microphones and speakers and users can also play back music on them as well as chat.


Unlike other mobile providers, Willcom deals solely with less popular PHS phones and recently also released a phone accessory that is a mobile phone. The marketing efforts come in a bid to lure customers back to the company as users have rapidly declined over the years instead turning to smartphones or other mobile providers. In fact marketing efforts involving the cute and fluffy aren’t new ground to Willcom either, check out our article from way back in 2008 when the same company released a fully functional stuffed Teddy Bear Phone that was even featured in the Good Design Awards….cuddly before their time?!

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Fashion Brands Transform Ravaged Rice Fields

We have previously talked about the number of innovative projects that have sprung up in the wake of the events in North Japan. Another fantastic project that caught our eye at the recent Tokyo Fashion Week, and is already harvesting results, aims at turning damaged lands in the Sendai area into fertile grounds for fashion. The big collaboration project that now includes more than 20 apparel manufacturers and retailers, was initiated by people from the textile and fashion industry such as Kondo Kenichi of Taishoboseki Industries,, in order to commence cotton farming in Tohoku area, where hundreds of hectares of land were devastated by the tsunami.


In the tsunami the rice paddies in these areas were not only destroyed, but left with high concentration levels of saline. “When the salt concentration level in the soil exceeds 0.2% it is impossible to grow rice on it, but cotton can grow on soil with 0.5% to 0.6% salt concentration” says Kondo.
The attempt of the Tohoku Cotton Project aims to create long term employment for the rice farmers by planting cotton crops on what used to be rice farms before the disaster. The cotton seeds were provided to affected farms and Taishoboseki buys up the cotton crops to spin them. The spun yarn is used to create commercial products and will eventually reach consumers.


Actual product sales are expected to commence in January 2012 and since the demand is already higher than anticipated, Taishoboseki plans to blend harvested cotton with other organic cotton to create approximately 20 tons of yarn.

The project is generating a lot of attention, especially after the recent Tokyo Fashion Week where top fashion designer Yuma Koshino announced her participation in the project and will be launching her products together with Japan Airline (JAL) for her next collection.


Other apparel brands such as Urban research, Lee and Lowrys Farm to name a few, are also delivering their message “Don’t forget Tohoku! We are still alive!” with the vision of seeing in the near future a sea of white cotton fields that spread far and wide all over the Sendai area and more importantly give residents employment and a new sustainable lifestyle.

Images courtesy of Openers

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iBousai Evacuee Support Kits for Wellness and Lifestyle

While it’s certainly not pleasant to think about future disasters in Japan (or anywhere else), they do happen, and with them come instant problems with displaced people, broken infrastructure, and sanitation needs. Since we cannot prevent most of these problems, we can only do our best to alleviate the symptoms, and the difference between the aftereffects of the earthquakes in Japan as opposed to Haiti can be summed up in one sentence: Wealth is Health.

Thus, the creative iBousai emergency kits from the Ritsumeikan University Research Center for Disaster Mitigation of Urban Cultural Heritage (yes, that’s the name) are simple solutions to very First World problems. In fact, most would be seen as luxuries during the even the best times in the Third World.


The iBousai come in four varieties currently being developed:
Kirei (Beautification): Essential oils and other products for women
Miru (Medical Care): Gauze, alcohol, and other wound treatment
Kaeru (Going Home): Maps, mini radio, and items to assist in travel
Yoru (Nighttime): Socks, whistle, and other items needed in the dark

Additional products in the kits are soaps, LED lights, mobile alarms, dry shampoo, and other toiletries.


For future disasters, these types of kits are not only compact and easy to ship, but they are designed to improve the quality of life for people living in extenuating circumstances. It might seem trivial to receive essential oils during a tragedy, but the goal of the project is to be useful for both physical and mental health, and that’s an admirable goal.

Future Retail with Smart Hangers

109 Men’s department store in Shibuya has gone hi-tec with it’s shopping experience by introducing digital interactive clothes hangers to one of it’s shops. The hangers, from Japanese company Team Lab, interact with digital displays above the products, triggering certain images and videos to be played when the hangers are picked up by a shopper.


The hangers look the same as a normal hanger but with a larger middle area which contains an embedded RFID chip. When handled by the shopper the hanger’s chip sends a signal to a computer which controls specific displays around the store corresponding to the position of that hanger.

In the shop we tried it out in, the display infront of the item automatically changed to display the product as well as other items that might go with it. The hanger can also be programmed to change the store’s background music, lighting and any other visuals programmed.


This interactive visual merchandising not only catches the eye of the consumer and drives through further purchasing through recommendations, but also logs details and aggregates data as to how popular an item is or how effective its positioning is in store. It is also a particularly unobtrusive form of marketing that blends in with the shop itself adding to the shoppers experience in a far more natural way.

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3.11 Picture Book Project Brings Smiles to Kids

In the months since the disasters hit up in the North of Japan a number of innovative movements have sprung up to try and offer assistance and relief to the hardest hit areas. We came across one such project this weekend, the “Ehon Project” (Picture Book Project), a mobile kids picture book library that is bringing smiles and relief to children who lost everything.


The project started in the few weeks after the tsunami hit on 3.11 by Chieko Suemori, an editor of children books, founder of Suemori Books. Originally it was set up to collect picture books from around Japan to be sent up to the evacuation shelters to be distributed to the many children who had lost their parents or family. As the movement grew and it received support from various Japanese companies, the decision was taken to build small mobile libraries which could be loaded up with books and tour the areas so kids instead of receiving the books as charity had chance to pick out the books they want as if in the library.


I chatted with the very cheerful and energetic Halhiko Suemori (pictured below), a coordinator of the project who told us how “many young children have been donating their old picture books and writing letters of support to the children who will receive the books in Iwate, “it is touching how much comfort it gives them, children are helping other children who lost everything.” The project has already collected over 50,000 books from all over Japan and is now raising funds for the Ehon Cars.


So far the organisation has managed to raise enough funds to buy and customize one of six mobile libraries it will send to the area. “Our idea is to custom-furnish lightweight vans as mini bookmobiles we will call “Ehon Cars” that can be driven by our volunteer staff and will be relatively inexpensive to maintain and fuel”. The cars and the volunteers aprons are also emblazoned with the Ehon Project logo which is a fantastically simplistic eye-catching design from Sotocoto, a popular Japanese web magazine focused on the environment.


The aim is to then donate the Ehon Cars to local communities in the area once the project is over,”when the vehicles are handed over, they will of course be packed full of picture books!”. For those wishing to donate you can visit the project website here with full instructions in English.

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Toshiba’s Energy Saving Eco Chip

A major focus of this years Ceatec Exhibition looked at new solutions in energy management with a number of brands displaying their latest innovative and leading edge “green” technologies. One product that caught our attention from Toshiba was their new “Eco Chip” displayed in their popular Regza LCD TV, which cuts power consumption in standby mode to zero watts.


The Eco Chip effectively means that the TV can be turned off by the remote control and achieve the same shut down as if being unplugged from the wall, drawing no power at all. This new technology therefore eliminates the “phantom load” drain, when appliances are still drawing a small amount of power when left plugged into the wall even though turned off. This “phantom load” can be as much as 10 to 15 watts per device and can make up nearly 10% of total residential energy consumption over a year.

The power conserving “Eco Chip” is a semiconductor that operates a mechanical relay between the AC (alternating-current) power cable and the power supply circuit inside the main body, and the Eco Chip is used to turn it on and off.


The Eco Chip was part of Toshiba’s “Smart Community” showcase and their “Home Energy Management System” (HEMS) which displayed a smart home “as an integral part of a future smart community”. With various energy challenges over summer just past in Japan, this type of energy control through visualization of energy use has already proven effective. Train stations throughout Tokyo displayed the city’s energy usage on digital boards, keeping the need to conserve energy at the forefront of the public’s mind and avoided any blackouts during the period, cutting the capital city’s energy usage by 20%.

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Tokyo Trains Go Online With Train Net

Starting from today and lasting a month passengers riding a singe train on Tokyo’s Yamanote line will be able to access a special information service called Train Net through smartphones via an on-board Wi-Fi network. JR (Japan Rail) have partnered with Mitsubishi to roll out the service as a trial on one of Tokyo’s busiest lines.


The new service was on display at today’s Ceatec Exhibition and is currently only installed on one train on the Yamanote line until November 2nd. This is the first time Tokyo’s trains will offer on-board Wi-Fi all be it for this one specific purpose and users can’t browse other sites through the network. Passengers are able to log on to the on-board Wi-Fi network and access a wide variety of entertainment and train information. One interesting function lets users know which carriages are the quietest and also the coolest, giving real time temperature read outs, particularly useful given the amount of people who ride the Yamanote line.


Going beyond mere functional train information the service also offers location based services, recommending different shops and restaurants in the vicinity of the stations the user is approaching and provides coupons and deals exclusive to those who use the service. There are also entertainment options that allows users to download web magazines and manga comics to browse between stations.


The system can be used with devices with browsers and users, once connected to the “trainnet” wifi, simply open the browser and the site opens automatically. The information compliments the screens currently on the trains which display simple information to commuters. One annoyance of the screen being that it scrolls through the information, meaning passengers needing to know which station is next have to wait until it appears on the screen, whereas the service allows access to the information right away.


The layout of the site is also nicely done, with the line information at the top of the screen most of the time and easy enough to navigate through all the other options. It is interesting that JR and Mistubishi have opted for a browser-based portal site that users have to visit through the Wi-Fi network as well as an app with similar functionality. People with devices that have wi-fi but no 3g can access information quickly, and the amount of content for everyone can be broader to include nice quality videos and music. The app is available for both Android and iPhone.

For all those train spotters wanting to check out the service on the train themselves, you can visit the site and see an update in real time where the train is and hop on at the nearest stop.

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Starbucks Japan Celebrates 15 Years, Promotes Sharing

Starbucks Japan is now celebrating its 15th anniversary in Japan, and has put out a special limited edition double latte available in convenience stores nationwide.


In fact, To treat their convenience store customers who buy the popular RTD iced coffees, Starbucks is promoting a campaign called “Share with a Friend”. By giving the sticker on top to someone you like (such as, in my case, me), they can redeem it for a small coffee at a retail Starbucks location.

They’ve also created an anniversary video thanking Japan for its business, though it’s rather odd that they don’t even support embedding of the video, but rather just getting people to link to it. I will never understand why companies do this besides the strange belief that they will benefit more from getting web traffic than from simply exposing as many people as possible to the video. Clearly I linked to it, but I don’t count, right?


We (CScout Japan) recently did some street-level consumer research for Starbucks here in Japan, and it was interesting what warm feelings the brand had among the people we talked to. I’d like to see Excelsior or Tully’s activate the same response here. Starbucks has done some great retail renewal projects recently to coincide with their new logo as well, and we’re happy for their success.

Shoe Technology Campaign Targets Grey Market

Recently, we came across an interesting interactive promotional display of new shoe technology by Asahi Corporate, at one of the train platforms in the center of Tokyo. An apparent first in the world, “SHM (Scre Home Mechanism) shoe technology” is supposed to “keep knees healthy and the walk enjoyable”. The product is targeted to anyone with troubled knees, either for future pain prevention or for current support of the knee joint movement. However, this product mostly focuses on the growing aging society in Japan, which is proportionally, the highest in the world (65+ make 23% of the population in 2010).


According to the Asahi research, each year, about 30 million knee joint transplants are performed in Japan, mostly among women over 50 years old. As a result, already in 2003, Asahi started developing SHM shoe technology, cooperating with orthopedic surgeons and researchers in Japan. It took them few years of clinical research and product development, followed by marketing and began selling them from 2006, but not until recently has it become a mainline capmaign.

Asahi medical walk2

The SHM technology is embedded into the heel of the shoe and apparently lightens the burden on the lower exterior knee joints, which supports the knee and is responsible for rotation when stepping on the heel. According to Asahi, this unique shoe structure; takes off the pressure of body weight when stepping on the heel, creates slight exterior rotation form the center of the heel to the tip toes while stepping on the foot, and controls movement of knee joints. Moreover, this mechanism creates an effective use of the inner thighs, which support the knee as well.

asahi medical walk1

The display was particularly interesting, although aimed to the aging society, it was fairly interactive including touch screen panels which featured personal health questions and a virtual physical examination. A built in television screen then displayed a detailed clinical explanation by physicians, and there was a movable display with wide variety of products. Questions such as: “Is it painful recently, to walk down the stairs?” or “You prefer taking the escalator rather than the stairs?”are set so as to determine your knee’s age (i.e if there has been excessive wear and tear). If the answer in most cases is “Yes”; your knee’s age is apparently over 70. The most interesting question for me was “Recently, is it hard to sit seiza? (Japanese traditional sitting position with folded knees)”. The majority of non Japanese people I am familiar with (including myself) –regardless their age- are absolutely incapable of spending more than 5 minutes in that position, which brings me to think about our Western knee’s age!

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AirSketcher Robotic Fan Reads the Room

At the recent Good Design Expo 2011 we had a chance to play with the AirSketcher, a robotic electric fan designed by Keita Watanabe.


In the center of the fan is a camera that can read different patterns printed on cards. In order to keep the target person constantly cool as they move about the room, the fan aligns itself by scanning for patterns it recognizes. When there is no pattern to be seen, it is busy looking around, and thus cooling the room in a random way, but locks on once it finds what it’s looking for.

Additionally, the patterns themselves can control different basic functions. Along with gestures, it’s possible to control fan position, speed, and turn it on and off.

While it now uses printed patterns, we could soon be looking at intelligent home appliances that read faces, knowing exactly how you like the wind to blow, or perhaps cooking your toast exactly right. Now that the tech-savvy are acquainted with the idea of using gestures to interact with devices, our future home life could be relatively button-free.