Archive for Technology

Tokyo Motor Show 2013

The 43rd Tokyo Motor Show was held at Tokyo Big Sight during Nov. 23-Dec. 1, 2013. No American car makers were there. No Lamborghini, Rolls Royce, Ferrari either.

Tokyo Motor Show 2013

Bridgestone airless tires

Old bus

Commercial vehicles also exhibited.

 

Convenient for old and handicapped people.

Honda

 

Old Formula 1

 

A sit-down Segway-type vehicle from Honda.

 

More my speed. Go-karts

Display of license plates.

More Tokyo Motor Show 2013 photos here.

Tokyo Sky Tree opens

Tokyo Sky Tree officially opened on May 22, 2012.

Congratulations to Tokyo Sky Tree and people in Sumida and Taito Wards for today’s official opening of Japan/Tokyo’s mega tourist attraction of the century. It’s going to be very difficult to top that (literally even) anytime soon.

Since I live in eastern Tokyo, I obviously have great interest in the Sky Tree. But it’s not only because I can see it from my bedroom window. It’s also because the tower is very inspiring and confidence-building to the Japanese. It produces national pride in many positive ways, not to mention economic benefits.

The indigo-white tower is actually very Japanese, from its structural design based on Japanese pagodas, to the elevators with an interior design based on Sumida Ward’s four seasons. The Solamachi shopping complex also integrates traditional shitamachi concepts.

Tokyo Skytree is a symbol of Japanese pride in their heritage, culture, and traditions co-existing with modern elements. I salute the designers/builders of Tokyo Skytree for showcasing Japan’s traditional beauty and elegance in such outstanding ways.

They expect 5.4 million visitors to go up the Sky Tree and 32 million visitors to the entire complex during the first year. Compare these staggering figures with the 7 million tourists who visit Hawaii in a year (20 percent or about 1.27 million are Japanese) and Tokyo Disneyland’s 25.35 million visitors last fiscal year (2011/12). From now on, a visit to Tokyo won’t be a visit to Tokyo without seeing Tokyo Sky Tree.

Buying a flat-panel TV in Japan

Last Nov. 2010 was a buying frenzy for TVs in Japan. Electrical appliance stores sure made a killing with so many customers every day until Nov. 30, 2010.

I was one of them, and in late Nov. 2010, I waited behind 30 people for about an hour to get hold of a salesman at my local Yodobashi Camera store, a large camera/electronics retailer in Japan. Even if you had already decided which model to buy and just wanted to fork over the cash to buy it, you had to wait.

The buying frenzy was caused by the Dec. 1, 2010 deadline imposed by the Japanese government when its Eco-point system would be dramatically revised. The Eco (i.e. Ecology) point system is a governmental reimbursement program for purchases of TVs, refrigerators, and air conditioners. Buy any of these products and you will receive Eco-points which can be exchanged for gift certificates or other cash-equivalent things. One Eco-point is worth 1 yen.

How many Eco-points you receive depends on the model and energy efficiency (rated from 1 to 5 stars) of the product. The program is to encourage people to buy more energy-efficient and environment-friendly appliances and switch to digital TVs in preparation for Japan’s switchover to all-digital TV broadcasting in July 2011.

I bought an air conditioner in summer 2010 for around 100,000 yen and received 6,000 Eco-points. In late Nov. 2010, I bought a 32-inch LED TV for 83,000 yen (before discounts) and received 12,000 Eco-points. If I bought the same TV after Nov. 30, 2010, I would receive only 6,000 Eco-points. From Dec. 1, 2010, the number of Eco-points would be halved. And that caused Japan’s TV buying frenzy in Nov. 2010. I also received 3,000 Eco-points to reimburse the recycling fee I had to pay to dispose of my old TV when the new TV arrived. (The man who delivered my new TV also took away my old TV.)

To convert your Eco-points into a gift certificate accepted at most stores in Japan, you have to send to the Japanese government an application form and include the receipt and a copy of the product warranty. Your dealer can help you with that. Then a few months later, you will receive a postcard which you take to your dealer to exchange it for gift certificates (usually 1000 yen denominations).

I waited till the last minute to buy a new TV because I could not decide on which brand/model to buy. I also thought that I should hold out for newer and better models. I was actually planning to buy a TV in June 2011, but the announcement of the Eco-points being halved after Dec. 1, 2010 spurred me and many others here to buy a new TV now.

So after you decide to buy a new TV, you have to decide which one to buy. Japan has so many famous brands and none of them have a compelling reason for you to go with that one instead of another. The Big Four TV brands in Japan are Sharp, Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba. There are other makers like Mitsubishi and Hitachi, but they occupy way less shelf space in stores. Unlike in the US, Samsung TVs are nowhere to be found in Japan.

Sharp is especially popular due to their fine reputation for flat-panel displays. Their Aquos brand is associated with high-quality displays in both TVs and cell phones. The problem was, I would have had to wait 2 or 3 months for the Sharp TV to arrive. Order in Nov. and arrives in Feb. I couldn’t wait that long so I went with another brand.

You can look at a Sharp TV and compare it to a comparable model of another brand, but can hardly tell the difference. I looked at all the TVs on display and could not say which looked better. This led me to conclude that on a practical level, the brand didn’t really matter much unless you’re a fan of a particular brand.

So I have no advice as far as the brand is concerned. But I noticed that certain brands and models are discounted more than others. My particular TV had a 20% discount which was more than the usual 13% or 15% discount. Certain models also have a better value for the price, and my TV was one of them. Before I bought my TV, I bought a Japanese magazine which reviewed all the TVs on the market. That really helped me to compare features and prices. The magazine also identified the TVs offering the best value for the price. Another way to choose a brand is to consider other products you might want to buy, such as a camcorder or DVR/Blu-ray recorder. Sticking with the same brand for all your video equipment usually makes things easier.

Also, LED TVs seem to be coming to fore, instead of non-LED TVs. The newest LCD TVs all seem to be LED models. Customers know that LED consumes less energy, provide a brighter picture, and have a thinner profile. And from what I’ve seen, the price difference between LED and non-LED models is not much. Get an LED TV.

One of the first things you have to decide is the screen size. Basically, the bigger the better. Most TV reviewers say that the minimum should be 32 inches for a living room. Having a 32-in. TV myself, I tend to agree. Although I think a 40-in. screen would make TV viewing a lot more pleasant if you have the room and cash to get one. If you have a six-mat room, a 32-in. TV would fit the bill, but you might still wish for a bigger TV. Interesting how the TV looks smaller in your house than when you saw it in the store.

Next, you have to decide on the features. I noticed the following types of feature sets in the latest TVs:

1. TV with no recording function.
2. TV with recording function using a built-in hard disk only.
3. TV with recording function using a built-in Blu-ray drive only.
4. TV with recording function using an external hard drive(s).
5. TV with recording function using a built-in hard disk and Blu-ray drive.

Before you decide on the feature set, you have to think about whether you will also buy a DVR/BD-R deck which can cost as much as or more than your TV. If you already have a DVR or plan to buy one, then get a TV with no recording function. Those models are really cheap and a good deal. You might think that it might be cheaper to buy a TV with a built-in HDD and BD-R than to buy a DVR/BD-R deck separately. Not really. TV makers want you to buy a separate DVR/BD-R deck so TVs with a built-in HDD and Blu-ray recorder will cost about the same as a basic TV plus a separate HDD/BD-R deck.

If you don’t have or don’t plan to get a separate DVR/BD-R deck, then you would want a TV with a recording function. One thing you have to understand about TVs recording to a built-in or external hard drive is that, the recorded programs can only be played back on that TV. You cannot connect the external HDD to another TV (even if it’s the same model) and playback the recorded programs. And if you want to copy a recorded program to a disk (DVD or Blu-ray), you will have to connect a separate DVR/BD-R deck (or your personal computer) to the TV’s outputs and playback the recorded program to record to a disk.

The TV’s external HDD is also incompatible with personal computers. If you connect the TV’s HDD to a computer, you will have to reformat it and wipe out the contents before it will be compatible with your computer. And vice versa, your computer’s HDD will have to be formatted especially for the TV to make it compatible with the TV. Whatever data you have on the HDD will be lost. I notice that hard drives sold in stores have labels like “Compatible with Toshiba Regza TVs,” implying that only certain HDDs are compatible with TVs. Well, my old HDD that I used with my Mac is perfectly compatible with my TV.

If your TV only has a Blu-ray recorder, you will need to insert a Blu-ray disk each time you want to record something. A standard Blu-ray disk holds 25 GB of data which is not much if you plan to record a lot of programs while on vacation. Built-in HDDs are usually at least 250 GB. An external HDD can be a lot larger. So if you want a TV with recording function, I would recommend recording to an external HDD unless you really want Blu-ray.

The problem with Blu-ray is that it’s still not widespread. I don’t really have friends/relatives who have a Blu-ray recorder or player. DVDs are still much more common here in Japan. Blu-ray is not gonna take off until it’s introduced in personal computers (i.e. Mac). They also have to make BD-R decks cheaper, on par with VHS tape decks. It’s still too expensive even though the price of a standard 25GB Blu-ray disk is now less than 200 yen. It’s a shame because Blu-ray does have definite advantages over DVDs which I find to be too small for high-definition videos. The slow spread of Blu-ray is a far cry from the quick adoption of CDs and DVDs by consumers.

As I shopped for a TV in Tokyo, I was amused by the weird product names that they all use. Like Bravia (a mistake for bravado?), Viera (related to Spanish name Vierra?), Regza (reggae music?), and Aquos. Aquos is Sharp’s well-known brand because it is also used in Sharp’s cell phone screens. It sounds nice, but I always wondered why they made it sound so similar to “aqua.” There’s no water involved. Not only that, the actual product designations like TH-L32R2 , LC-32DX3, LC-32DR3, etc., are just impossible to remember.

What happened to names like Sony Trinitron? (The name of my old TV.) That was a good-sounding name, easy to remember, and it was related to the actual technology behind it. Wish they could create names like that again. But then, the Japanese are notorious for creating and using strange or mistaken or laughable English.

LED lightbulbs cost 2200 yen to 4900 yen each.

Another thing about Eco-points I should mention is that at Yodobashi Camera, you can double the value of your Eco-points if you use them to buy LED lightbulbs or rechargeable batteries. That’s what I did. I used 9,000 Eco-points, normally worth 9,000 yen, to buy 18,000 yen worth of LED lightbulbs. But you have to do this transaction before you send in your Eco-point application to the government. Go to Yodobashi with the Eco-point application form, receipt, and warranty and tell them that you want to use some (or all) your Eco-points to buy LED lightbulbs or rechargeable batteries. They will process your Eco-points and you can take home the LED lightbulbs on the spot. If you still have any Eco-points remaining, you can rewrite your application to reflect the lower number of Eco-points and send it in. Your dealer can help you with this.

My new TV arrived about a month after I ordered it in Nov. 2010. A one-month wait was tolerable, and it was just in time for me to record a TV series starting in early Jan. 2011. If you’ve never bought a flat-panel TV before, you might be surprised when you first turn it on. There’s no picture. You instead see on-screen instructions to first set up your TV. It’s simple enough, but you will have to be able to read Japanese. You have to select the region where you will use the TV, enter even your postal zip code, etc. After the setup is done and the TV picture appears, you feel relieved and happy that you’re finally entering the digital age.

I’m impressed by the picture quality compared to my old standard-definition TV, but skin tones still look a little too artificial/electronic and maybe too pink at times. But the human eye is quite forgiving and I know that I won’t mind it so much. I like the on-screen TV schedule display which I can use to program the TV to record programs. (Of course, you have to read Japanese to read the TV schedule.) I also love the picture quality of the recorded programs. They look the same as the actual program. Unlike videotapes which always degraded the picture quality. The TV’s sound quality was quite chintzy out of the box, but fortunately the bass/treble could be adjusted and it now sounds good enough without me having to buy external speakers. Another great thing is that the slim TV frees up a lot of space in front of it, previously occupied by the big CRT. Well, after putting it off for so long, I’m glad that my TV hunt is finally over.

mixi, Japan’s largest SNS

I finally joined http//mixi.jp in Sept. 2006 just to see what the fuss was about. It just had an IPO, making the founders millionaires/billionaires.

mixi is a social networking site (SNS) all in Japanese. If you don’t know what an SNS is, Google it and find out. The most famous one outside Japan is myspace.com.

It is free to join mixi which currently has over 5 million members. This is small compared to myspace, but for Japan it is huge. And it’s a closed system, which means you cannot access it unless you are a member. To become a member, you must receive an email invitation from a current member. mixi says that current members can only invite people whom they know personally, and not random strangers like you sending requests for an invitation after reading about it at a BBS. Members must also be at least age 18. However, I don’t see any way how mixi can enforce such rules.

When you join, you have to decide on a nickname. It’s interesting that your nickname need not be unqiue. There are multiple people with the same mixi nicknames, which can make things confusing.

When you agree to the terms of service, you receive your own profile page and URL. This is where you can set and enter your profile. As little or as much personal info as you want. A small profile image is also displayed. You have to upload your own profile image (up to 3).

When people want to know more about you, they will access your profile page. And when they do so, they leave an automatic “footprint” (ashiato) or a record of their visit. You can see this footprint or profile access log. It shows who came to see your profile and when. It logs the number of visitors to your profile page as well. So whenever you access someone’s profile page, that person will know that you’ve been there. Such a thing cannot happen at myspace since it is an open system where non-members can view profile pages.

Besides your profile page which is accessible by mixi members, you also have your own personal home/top page. This is accessible only by you. When you are logged in, your home/top page is where you can see messages from other members and messages posted at the communities you’ve joined (more about this later). There is also a box showing graphic icon links to your mixi friends (called “my mixi”) and another box showing graphic icon links to the communities you’ve joined.

If you can read Japanese, you will find the layout and controls, buttons, etc., simple and quite easy to use. You don’t have to read the manual to learn how to use mixi. It’s quite intuitive and quick to learn.

But what will eat away your hours (or days) are the numerous communities which are special interest groups much like Yahoo Groups. First you will want to browse and search to see what’s there. You will soon find out that there is a LOT. Quite overwhelming. There are communities for almost everything.

There are communities for every prefecture, city, town, and village in Japan. And many neighborhoods also have a community. Almost all the primary, junior, and high schools have a community. All the universities have one, as well as their sports clubs and teams.

There seems to be a community for almost all the train and subway stations (and lines) in Japan. They talk about new shops or restaurants which opened near their station, etc., etc. There may even be a community for your local pool, gym, and shopping arcade. The communities also sometimes hold offline meetings (called “off-kai” in Japanese) for face-to-face parties.

It’s incredible. Although the largest communities are quite active with frequent posts, many others are pretty inactive with few posts even with hundreds of members. So you should look at the past posts and see how active the community is. If it is too active, your mailbox will be jammed with messages every day.

Any mixi member can start and join a community. A community is essentially a BBS. Member can post messages which will appear on the community’s Web page as well as on the home page of all the members. Communities can also be public where any mixi member can join or private where approval is required to join.

Many members tend to join numerous communities, making it impossible to keep up with all the messages. However, your message inbox can be expanded or contracted so it doesn’t mess up your home page layout. Instead of joining all the communities I’m interested in, I just bookmark them instead. I join only the most favorite communities.

Having a lot of mixi friends is another ego trip among many members (like at myspace.com). Anybody you invite to join mixi automatically becomes your mixi friend. And anybody who wants to be your friend will send a message and ask you first. You can then either accept or reject the request. Having a lot of friends looks good on your profile page, but it will only increase the number of messages in your inbox. The latest blog entries of all your friends will appear in your inbox. But this is manageable since it does not affect the page layout unless you expand the message list. It will just make it harder to find the most important messages.

Although mixi is free to join, they also offer a “Premium” account for only 315 yen/month. The biggest advantage of this is that you can create your own online photo albums. Your home page will show a box listing your photo albums. And you will also see a “Make photo album” button on your home page. Your photo albums can occupy up to 1 GB of server space. It has a commenting system as well. Your blog will also have 300 MB of space instead of 100 MB. And your mailbox messages will be saved permanently instead of being deleted automatically after 60 days.

The demographics of mixi members seem to average in the low and mid-20s. I have come across many college-age people and many of the communities have been started by college students.

The vast majority of communities are run by amateurs or unofficial people. I don’t see mixi communities run by local governments or government agencies and organizations. mixi is really becoming like a second Internet in Japan. There are so many people on it that I don’t think local governments and other official people can keep ignoring it. Of course, it took a long time for many local governments just to make their own official Web sites. So I’m wondering how long it will take them to join mixi. I think they would really miss out if they don’t have a presence on mixi. Perhaps they hesitate because mixi is a private company. But then, all the utilities in Japan are provided by private companies. So it shouldn’t be an issue.

I think the bottleneck is that it is a closed system. Non-members cannot see what the fuss is about. They cannot see how much information is there, the incredible diversity, the community spirit, and the huge numbers, and the opportunities and benefits of the site. People who don’t know remain ignorant. I see no reason why it should be a closed system. They should let anybody access and view mixi pages, but only allow members to have a profile page, join communities, and post messages. With a larger audience, the ad revenue would increase, and more people will be enticed to join. I really hope that they decide to open it.

I have also noticed a substantial foreign segment at mixi. Many are outside Japan (many Japanese members are also outside japan). There are a few English communities so they can thrive there if they cannot read/write Japanese. I would think mixi would someday at least provide an English translation of their Terms of Service and other basic info.

I have to conclude that mixi is great. If you are a member, you can find me by searching for philbert or PhotoGuide Japan.

Note that I do not send mixi invitations to strangers. And keep in mind that everything is in Japanese.

TV cell phones

April 1, 2006 in Japan saw the official start of the so-called “one-seg” (one segment) wireless transmission of TV channels on the cell phone. With a compatible cell phone, we can now watch TV on the cell phone.

I have no doubt that once the price of these one-seg cell phones come down to half its current price of around 40,000 yen, they will become wildly popular in Japan. Almost as with the hugely successful camera phone. It’s already very popular in South Korea.

You don’t need to download anything. The TV programs are broadcast live via wireless for free. The only cost to you is battery power. The screen is small, but big enough to recognize programs. As these TV phones become more popular, TV stations and advertisers will have to confront the fact that their programs and commercials might be viewed on a cell phone. Will they produce different programming or commercials for the cell phone viewer or use the same programming and CM as broadcast on regular TV? These cell phones also enable data transmissions so advertisers can receive feedback from the cell phone viewer, unlike via normal TV sets. This is a major advantage.

Needless to say, watching TV in the train, etc., will be too convenient to ignore. People still use the cell phone for a lot of emailing or text messaging. Someday, this will likely change when they will be watching TV most of the time instead.

I see it as a very practical thing, especially when you’re traveling in Japan. You can watch TV programs in the locality you’re currently in. You can check the weather and news. And it would really come in handy in the event of a major natural disaster. We are told to keep a radio handy in case of a natural disaster. But if you have a TV cell phone, that’s even better to keep up with the latest news. It’s much easier to carry a cell phone at all times than a radio.

When I get a TV cell phone, a spare battery will be a necessity. Hope those prices come down soon.

Update: I did buy a one-seg cell phone in mid-2009 for about 50,000 yen. It was somewhat disappointing though, as the reception is still subpar. In major cities outdoors, the reception is good. But indoors or in rural areas, the reception is either bad or nothing.