Archived: Ginza Ubiquitous Network Project Evolves, Kind Of

For several years (we first reported on it in a 2005 report!) there has been a project going on in Ginza that teams up high-technology from Japanese firms with a local government initiative to create an RFID-tagged, navigable city. Called the Tokyo Ubiquitous Network Project, this attempt at building an ecosystem based on touch and proximity rather than satellite-based location which is inevitably flawed on dense urban streets and indoors. The Guardian featured it back in 2007, but it’s been changing over the years.


In case you didn’t know, Ginza is covered with passive RFID tags called UCodes, particularly on light poles. Capable of being read by NFC-equipped phones like the Samsung Galaxy, when paired with an application that has access to the data it’s possible to do much more specific location tracking. You can touch your phone directly to the code to receive information or, in the case of this project, use an external reader that can grab the data from several meters away as you move around the city.


We’ve been reporting on and testing the project for several years now, and while it has certainly improved in some ways, it’s clearly the result of group-thinking and lack of vision. The photo above is from the previous iteration of “Tokyo Ubi Navi” where the group was still attempting (after several years) to build their own handset capable of reading the UCodes and providing local information for tourists. The main problem with this was that, as typical in the physical product-oriented mindset, the software and GUI was just plain awful.


This time around they’ve completely abandoned the ill-fated handset and gone with (rather surprisingly) a Samsung Galaxy smartphone. However, what the Galaxy lacks is the native ability to read UCodes from further away, so they created the external Ubiquitous Marker Receiver which reads the tags, and then sends the information to the phone via bluetooth. Not the perfect solution, but still better than the clunky iterations before.


The receiver itself is pretty small, very lightweight, and doesn’t need to be right next to the phone to work. In fact, you can keep it in your bag or pocket without problem.


Of course, all of this technology remains as potential until useful software is created for the end-user, and this is again where the project falls pretty flat. The app that can use the marker data to provide location information is called Kokosil and is developed by the Ubiquitous Computing Technology Corporation, the company that produces the UCodes as well as the previous handsets. They’ve done some similar projects in other areas as well.

We were given the opportunity to take the system out for a test run in Ginza, but it was an incredibly frustrating couple of hours. We chose a “Ginza backstreets” tour created by a local expert that would show us hidden spots and places that are usually dwarfed by the high-rises, but we spent a whole lot of time fighting with the phone and not a lot of time admiring the atmosphere.

Not only is the software wonky and, frankly, inaccurate most of the time, but it’s clear that a user-centric approach was far from the creator’s minds. The goal of Kokosil is to help people better navigate throughout Ginza, learn historial facts, have a nice meal, and find things that they would never normally discover. That’s a great goal, but the slow and unintuitive interface means that you end up staring at a screen while you’re wandering around instead of experiencing the city. At one point I looked so confused by what the app was telling me that some people stopped to ask me if I needed help.


We were also a bit surprised at how bold our tour guide was! Not only were we literally led down a back alley and told to walk through a company’s office (which we did), but we were brought out to the front of a very conservative women’s clothing shop and told to go in, talk to the owner, and do some shopping! She saw us milling about outside, and came out to see what was going on in the end. These were actually the best parts of the experience, so there’s potential for creating tours that force people into uncomfortable situations that they would normally be reluctant to try. The ‘office’ was in fact a mandated passageway created when a large building was built over an alleyway. They were required to create space to walk through to the other side, so you end up walking right through a glass-enclosed hallway in-between offices. Pretty funny stuff.

The Tokyo Ubi Navi Project ends up being the typical Japanese case of a great idea and quality technology paired with a mediocre interface and the common sense of your average government bureaucrat (a problem difficult to avoid when Shintaro Ishihara, the elderly and intolerant governor of Tokyo, is featured on the project page).

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t potential for the project, but it’s clear that after nearly a decade in development there won’t be anything long-lasting without abandoning the current model and going for openness. It IS a government project after all. I say leave the tags up, but open up their data for any app developers to utilize, and you’ll have a much better chance of creating a real market for this.

If you’re interested in trying out the handsets yourself you can borrow them for free in Ginza at the Mitsukoshi department store.


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