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Telesar robot
Telexistence’s Telesar V robot takes its cues from a human wearing a headset and manual control apparatus. The robot is an inspiration for the ANA Avatar Vision. (University of Tokyo / Tachi Lab)

All Nippon Airways’ newly announced sponsorship of a $10 million contest for real-life avatars is just one part of a grander vision that aims to break down barriers through robotic telepresence.

“We see ourselves not as an airplane operator, but as a company that aims to bridge the gaps between the different cultures that exist in our world,” Kevin Kajitani, assistant manager for ANA’s Digital Design Lab and Innovation Research, told GeekWire today. “And that’s where we see the avatars fitting in.”

The way Kajitani and his colleagues define them, avatars are robots that are remotely controlled by humans, enabling their operators to see, hear, feel and interact freely in a remote environment in real time.

Such systems already exist — one example is Japan’s touchy-feely Telesar V robot. ANA’s vision is aimed at facilitating a quantum leap in sophistication.

The details behind the ANA Avatar Vision were rolled out tonight in conjunction with the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

Sponsorship of the ANA Avatar Prize is just one of four pillars in the Japan-based airline’s vision. The three other pillars include:

  • The world’s first avatar test field: ANA has formed a partnership with southern Japan’s Oita Prefecture to create a regional hub for avatar research, development and testing. Work at the ANA Avatar Oita Test Field will focus on potential applications including agriculture and fishing, tourism and education, health care and space exploration.
  • An avatar crowdfunding platform: ANA plans to leverage its existing WonderFly crowdfunding platform to raise market awareness, participation and capital for avatar development. XPRIZE teams and other innovators will be able to use the platform to advance their visions, and some avatar-related projects have already begun fundraising on WonderFly.
  • ANA’s avatar service platform: Even after the XPRIZE program is done, ANA will continue work on an platform that will rapidly release avatar services into the marketplace. Avatar service concepts that are successfully tested in Oita Prefecture will be fine-tuned for use with an application platform that’s currently under development. The platform would allow anyone in the world to connect to a remote avatar, and potentially provide the foundation for a new form of telepresence-based transportation.

ANA’s interest in avatars came to the fore during an XPRIZE Visioneers Summit in 2016, and the positive response from mentors led XPRIZE organizers to select the concept as the focus of its latest competition to incentivize innovation.

“This idea came from us,” Akira Fukabori, ANA’s avatar program director, told GeekWire.

Fukabori said the key to success will be to link the XPRIZE contest with ANA’s wider initiative to develop avatar services as a business.

“It’s really hard to compete for four years just to win the prize purse,” he explained. “You really need the service. You need to let investors know that this is not just some research and development. You need to tell the investors who are working on these technologies that they can actually sell these technologies and create money.”

Kajitani said ANA’s interest in avatars is complementary to its status as Japan’s biggest airline. He said ANA’s analysis suggests that the airline industry impacts only about 6 percent of the population every year. (Many of those airline passengers make multiple flights in the course of a year.)

“No matter how many airports you build, no matter how many airplanes we fly, we’re never going to reach that 100 percent number,” Kajitani said. “So we realized that we needed to find a new breakthrough to be able to connect more people physically.”

Avatars could provide that breakthrough.

“We see a future where you log onto our website, and you can choose whether you want to fly somewhere or whether you want to avatar into somewhere,” Kajitani said. “It’ll be a new option for travel and real-life transportation. We believe that it’s not going to decrease the amount of air demand. We believe it’s going to actually expand air demand, just like email and videoconferencing and web conferencing have done.”

For example, the experiences that avatar travelers have in an exotic environment might encourage them to travel there in the flesh, to experience the tastes and smells that can’t be sampled with the avatar.

That doesn’t mean ANA would build the avatars or brand the service. “We plan to be more of the platform player in the industry,” Kajitani said.

Fukabori emphasized that avatars wouldn’t provide a virtual reality experience, in the strict sense of the term. Instead, operators would use their avatars to experience the real world. However, the tools developed for avatar services — particularly for processing visual data and providing haptic touch feedback — could be applied to VR gaming as well.

Similarly, the development of avatars needn’t open the door to a Terminator-style robo-nightmare, Kajitani said. “We really believe this technology will do the exact opposite,” he said. “We’re talking about robots that are used as tools.”

ANA already has recruited more than a dozen organizational partners for its Avatar Vision. In addition to Oita Prefecture, those partners include:

  • NTT DoCoMo, SoftBank and KDDI, three of Japan’s top telecom companies. They’ll provide the high-bandwidth telecommunications infrastructure that avatar services will require.
  • Hiroshima Prefecture and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which will pioneer a “Commitment to Peace” application for avatar travel.
  • Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which will set up a model interplanetary base for telepresence experiments.
  • Kanazawa Institute of Technology, a use-case test partner for education.
  • Okinawa Churashima Foundation / Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, a use-case test partner for tourism.
  • Japan Air Terminal / Haneda Robotics Lab, a use-case test partner for airport services.
  • Shimano, hardware technical support partner.
  • TechShop Japan / Fujitsu, hardware development support partner.
  • Addix, a digital marketing company headquartered in Japan.
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