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Augmented Reality Mapping: Tokyo's Nameless Streets

Tokyo is the kind of city that labyrinths aspire to learn from. Twisting and turning, full of thousands of streets with quite literally no name, and buildings without any identification, it is responsible for thousands of years worth of lost productivity as trainee workers and visitors become hopelessly lost, continually, in the jumble.

There are two solutions to this:

1. Name the streets and give the buildings numbers
2. Use technology in zany ways to try and fix the problem.

This being Tokyo, the solution was obvious. It did not involve street names or numbers.

In the most primitive beginnings of a ubiquitous sensor web, they created at first, hand-held fax machines in the 1980s, then hand-held satellite navigation in the 1990s, to help denizens find their way around.

Still, this was not enough. Some areas of the city are such multi-levelled mazes, that satellite navigation is of no help, and faxes cannot handle directions in 3D. Straty one step from a printed list of directions and you are lost. Even worse, until very very recently, there was no way to pick up gps data from underground, rendering the equally maze like tunnel and subway systems unmappable.

The only real solution, when maps fail, and names are not considered, is a sensor network. A network of embedded, interconnected sensors everywhere. Each of which performing a specific small purpose, and passing that information out when requested. The cost of such a system is unfathomable, but the Japanese are building it.

Enter, Tokyo University.

The Tokyo Ubiquitous Network Project, brainchild of professor Ken Sakamura, is not your usual academic project. Helped by enthusiastic government support, Sakamura forsees "an infrastructure for the 21st century" as he puts it. Or, in plainer words, pretty much the network described by authors such as Vernor Vinge, and Neal Stephenson.

A world in which a true augmented reality blooms. Where every advert, shop, building of any description, vehicle, or stretch of asphalt has information to give you. Where advertisers are able to personalise offers to your specific needs, and where disabilities become muted issues, at least as far as navigating the world is concerned.

The one aspect Sakamura is not happy with is advertiser intrusion. He is trying to design a system that does not require the user to give out any personal details.

"With this system the user is in complete control. As a user of such a network we will see our environment around us. We seek only to chip or tag objects and the environment, never people. With this system you can choose to read which you wish. The ubiquitous communicator - the pocket device you use to read the information around you - can only read and write, which means your identity is protected."

How well this would hold out in other countries is doubtful in the extrteme. But, if the system makes it possible, then it should remain possible, just not mandatory, elsewhere.

During the last months of 2007 a small-scale trial was held in Tokyo. Personal computers the size of PDAs were handed out to tourists and commuters alike. They were then free to wander the city, with their PDAs picking up any useful information anywhere they went.

At Ginza metro-rail station, the PDA lit up with a 3D, real-time map of the area around the station, allowing users to see immediately which way to go to further their travels, and avoid jams.

Inside certain shops and large stores, RFID tags on products activated and told the user about the products, and active sensors welcomed them, and offered advice, and directions.

It's a small start, but, with complete government backing and increasing interest from commerce, Japan's ubiquitous network - sensor web - is already off and running.

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