TRON SHOW 2003, TEPS 2003

TRON SHOW 2003: Fruits of Standardization Finally Realized

TRON SHOW 2003, which ran from December 12 through 14, 2002, at Laforet Museum Roppongi in Tokyo, turned out to be quite an impressive display of what you can do with standards that everyone follows. And for those of you who aren't familiar with the history of the TRON Project, that's what this whole project has been about from the beginning--creating open, royalty-free, real-time hardware and software standards to allow the electronics and computer industries to create a myriad of interoperable devices to serve as the basis for computerizing human society in the 21st century. That was goal when the project officially began in 1984, and at last, thanks to the new T-Engine standards, it has been realized. Thus it should come as no surprise to industry observers that foreign membership in the T-Engine Forum is climbing, and that two foreign firms with advanced software technologies sent representatives from overseas and gave presentations in English at TRON SHOW 2003.

The biggest foreign team was from an innovative French software firm, NexWave Solutions SAS, which has developed a unique patent-pending technology for componentizing the elements of the various layers of software in a computer system. A new version of this, "T-Integrator," has been specifically developed for the T-Engine platform to improve the reusability of middleware and applications for the T-Engine platform. The other foreign firm that had an exhibit was Solid Information Technology Corporation, which has developed a distributed database management system that is particularly useful in consumer electronic devices, such as cell-phones and wireless PDAs. It is optimized to run relatively simple SQL at high-speed with bi-directional replication. Originally a Finnish company, the firm moved its headquarters to Mountain View, California, to improve its chances of penetrating the all important American market, although most of the company's research and development still takes place in Finland.

Of course, there was no shortage of innovation from the Japanese companies that exhibited products and gave presentations at TRON SHOW 2003. The acronym-friendly PIN CHANGE Co., Ltd., a new startup in the Matsushita group, shocked everyone by revealing that it developed its new TEA Terminal educational computer prototype in only "three weeks," which is a result of the fact that the T-Engine development board is exceedingly close to what a production board would look like. In addition to its TEA Terminal for educational use, the firm displayed a number of other strange prototype T-Engine-based devices that at least show the company's engineers are having a lot fun with T-Engine. Mitsubishi Electric Corporation engineers also had a little fun of their own. They developed a µT-Engine-based IP telephone for IP Talk Corporation in a matter of a few months. This promises to cut long distance telephone charges to zero provided the party receiving the call also has an IP telephone.

Although there was no new release of Cho Kanji at this year's show, Personal Media Corporation did release the first eTRON-based product for securing data on personal computers. Named File Locker, the 98,000 yen (tax not included) system is aimed at the MS Windows market--in operates with the Japanese versions of MS Windows 98SE, ME, 2000, and XP--not the tiny Cho Kanji market. Consisting of a USB-compatible card reader and a USB cable, card adapter, seven non-contact eTRON cards (extra cards are available in sets of five for 5,000 yen), and a CD-ROM with the required software for installation, File Locker basically allows for multiple users to secure their data files in a multiuser environment by placing the eTRON non-contact IC card on the card reader and using a simple drag and drop operation for encryption or decryption. Encryption is performed using the 3DES and AES systems in parallel.

Since TRON symposia and shows for years have shown us nothing but hardware innards, real-time kernels, and development tools, being presented with a wide range of products aimed at end users was quite a change. Speaking of hardware innards, Yokogawa Digital Computer Corporation unveiled a new T-Engine implementation based on Motorola Corp.'s DragonBall MX1 microprocessor, which uses an ARM core. Yokogawa Digital Computer will put this T-Engine implementation on the market in January 2003 at a price of 268,000 yen, and the firm said it is expecting sales of 5,000 units in the first year. We were also informed that other T-Engine boards based on Fujitsu Ltd.'s FR-V series of microprocessors, plus microprocessors developed by Toshiba Corporation and Oki Electric Industrial Co., Ltd., are in development. These new implementations are an indication that the T-Engine project is being taken very seriously by the world's leading semiconductor manufacturers, who stand to gain quite a lot from standardization in the embedded systems field.

Numbering Everything in the World: Ubiquitous IDs and Ubiquitous ID Centers

There were a lot of indications that TRON SHOW 2003 was going to be an exceptional annual show. The press conference prior to the show on December 11 was packed with Japanese reporters who were given a preview of what was to come the following day. Then at the opening ceremony, there were also two high-level officials from the central government [1] to cut the ribbon along with the project leader and the TRON Association managing director. There were also interpreters at the opening ceremony, and they stayed for the full three days of the show and the Enableware symposium, interpreting everything including remarks at the reception at the end of the first day. There were also a lot of foreign visitors at the show. Some of them were embassy staff who dropped by to check out the products of companies from their home country. Others were sent by companies, and they included a group of Koreans from the central research laboratory of a leading electronics manufacturer.

At the pre-show press conference, TRON Project Leader Prof. Ken Sakamura came out with another one of his now famous macro design schemes, which usually leave both Japanese and foreign audiences staring at him in stony disbelief. This one involves literally giving everything in the world a number, a "Ubiquitous ID," to be exact. These would be issued by "Ubiquitous ID Centers," which would be established at the national level, and they would cover all goods and services in a country. The reason for establishing them at the national level in every country is so that social and cultural information can also be included with production, distribution, recycling, reuse, and disposal information. There is room for all this detailed information in a Ubiquitous ID, as it is 128 bits long. Another interesting feature of Ubiquitous IDs is that they are designed to be read across various types of networks using multiple methods. These include read-only RFID [radio frequency identification], writeable RFID, and contact/non-contact IC cards.

So why hasn't anyone in a foreign country thought of something like this? Well, in fact, they have. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there is a project called the Auto ID Center, which involves creating 96-bit IDs for products that will serve as "super bar codes." This system, however, has different goals, a narrower scope, and its use would be centered around the Internet. Moreover, it uses a different frequency for RFID, 915 MHz (this frequency is used for cell-phones in Japan and Europe), while Ubiquitous IDs use 2.45 GHz, the internationally approved frequency for RFID chips. (Smart cards with eTRON will use 13.56 MHz, so in effect TRON will employ a "double band" for its Ubiquitous ID scheme.) During the question and answer period, Prof. Sakamura was immediately asked if this put Japan in competition with the U.S. He pointed out that since the technologies are different and have different goals, they are not in competition with each other. Another questioner asked about the scope of the Ubiquitous ID. Prof. Sakamura replied that it would applied to all things: products, services, and even middleware for the T-Engine development boards.

As an example of what could be done with these Ubiquitous IDs, Prof. Sakamura proposed an Internet refrigerator loaded with Ubiquitous-ID-tagged fresh food items. One could easily check from the supermarket what one needed while shopping, he noted. But this is really a puny use of the Ubiquitous ID technology. A more outstanding example of what could be done with it is in home automation with helper robots. At present, if one told a robot such as Honda Corporation's ASIMO, to go fetch a book from a bookcase, for example, the robot could not do it unless it was equipped with very advanced sensors and artificial intelligence, which naturally would place its cost well above what an individual could afford. However, if every book on a bookshelf had a Ubiquitous ID tag embedded in it and the robot had Ubiquitous ID readers installed in its hands, it could easily locate the book, and it could accomplish the task without the use of high-cost sensors or complicated artificial intelligence algorithms.

Accordingly, this technology, which is hardly being reported on in the foreign technical press, is also going to be instrumental in creating low-cost artificial intelligence applications that will eventually be deployed inside intelligent homes in Japan. Another thing that is being ignored by the foreign media is the fact that T-Engine development platform is to the world of embedded systems what the IBM-PC/AT-compatible board has become to the world of personal computers. It's appearance is a watershed event, but no one seems interested in it because it was developed in Japan, which is never supposed to set standards. Even more important is the rapid distribution of middleware that this T-Engine standardization makes possible. System development time, and thus costs, will be greatly reduced. At the press conference, Prof. Sakamura explained T-Collection and T-Distribution, which are names applied to the system in which object software is collected and distributed to developers on line.

Project Leader Sketches Out TRON Approach to the Ubiquitous Computing Society

The reason Japan is ahead of the pack in the race to create a ubiquitous computing society is because Japan has been preparing for this age since the early 1980s. Let's be specific. When the IBM-PC was little more than a year old, Japan started planning for an age when all computers would be connected together in real time. This was in 1982 when the IBM-PC could not even communicate with IBM mainframes! Personal computers were supposed to be stand alone devices that mainly did batch processing--just like mainframes. As Prof. Sakamura pointed out in his keynote address, Mark Weiser, the Xerox PARC researcher who invented the term "ubiquitous computing," described this concept in the September 1991 issue Scientific American in an article titled "The Computer for the 21st Century." This was seven years after the TRON Project had been officially launched and work on the TRON Architecture had yielded the ITRON kernel, the most widely used operating system today.

There are still a lot of people in the U.S. who believe that Microsoft Corporation controls the world of operating systems. In fact, as Prof. Sakamura noted, personal computers only account for a tiny fraction of computerized devices equipped with operating systems. While about 140 million personal computers were produced in 2002, there were 400 million cell-phones plus 5.4 billion other embedded devices produced in the same year. Ninety-four percent of the embedded devices use ITRON, making it the most widely used operating system in the world. In his keynote speech titled "The TRON Approach to the Ubiquitous Computing Society," he once again pointed out that ubiquitous computing also requires real-time performance, something that most other architectures do not stress. And then there's security. The TRON Architecture has eTRON, which has already undergone successful field trials and is now being included in commercial products. Most importantly, there's numbering everything with ubiquitous IDs, and here once again TRON is in the lead.

Prof. Sakamura, being a renowned gadget designer, is already thinking up all sorts of new applications for this technology. One concept he has never talked about before is putting tiny computer chips with sensors into clothing that could automatically communicate with air conditioning systems to keep the temperature at a comfortable level. This would be great for pilots, who may not have the time to fiddle with climate controls, and the physically disabled, who may not have the ability to manipulate them. Chips for this type of application obviously would have to be ruggedized to survive laundry processes, but this kind of application is a typical example of Prof. Sakamura's holistic approach to computer system design. As if to underscore that, during his description of Ubiquitous IDs, he stressed that they were intended to cover the entire product cycle, from the raw material, manufacturing, and distribution stages on through to marketing, utilization, reuse, and recycling. This, he hopes, will lead to better user service, precise after service, and highly precise marketing in real time.

In addition to being a gadget designer, Prof.Sakamura is also a harsh critic of computer and network technologies. While lots of people in the Europe and America think the Internet is the greatest thing since sliced bread, Prof. Sakamura points out its deficiencies at almost every appearance he makes. During his keynote address, he noted that although the Internet Protocols are simple, they place quite a burden on the terminals connected to the Internet. Moreover, Internet security is poor, which is bad for e-commerce, and it is difficult to process in real time using the Internet, as many American stock traders have found out to their dismay. And as far as ubiquitous computing is concerned, the Internet lacks concepts such as physical and social location, which make it difficult to create the computerized living spaces envisioned by the TRON Project. The reason Prof. Sakamura has come up with technologies such as eTRON and Ubiquitous IDs is cover these shortcomings in existing Internet technologies.

However, it was concerning T-Engine that Prof. Sakamura really wanted to make his main point in his keynote address. With T-Engine and its subsets, which are real-time, open development platforms for embedded systems with eTRON security built in, Prof. Sakamura said the T-Engine project is first of all aiming at "quick system development" and "quick middleware porting," which in turn lead to products that can be "quickly sent to market"--the three patto's as he called them in Japanese. But these alone will not enable the creation of ubiquitous networks. That requires the fourth patto, namely "quick to connect," which can only been accomplished on the basis of industry-wide standardization. That is exactly what the T-Engine project is offering: open, royalty-free, industry-wide standardization. A good example of all these patto's, or quick steps, as Prof. Sakamura pointed out, is Mitsubishi Electric's IP telephone, which normally would have required a year to a year-and-a-half to develop, not the three months it actually took.

T-Engine Makers Describe Their Wares in Theater Sessions

At TRON SHOW 2003, there were lots of descriptions of the various implementations of the T-Engine development platform in the theater presentation sessions. Personal Media described the T-Engine Development Kit sold with them, while NEC Electronics Corporation, Mitsubishi Electric, and Hitachi described their various T-Engine-based development platforms. Yokogawa Digital Computer described a wide range of T-Engine boards with processors from various makers based on the ARM microprocessor architecture. In short, a substantial number of leading microprocessor makers are now participating in the T-Engine project, which means that a wide variety of options will be available to system designers, who can comparison shop on the basis of such variables as cost, processing speed, power consumption, development environment support, and even training of technical staff. And then, of course, there's all the middleware that can be ported from one platform to the other simply by recompiling.

One of NEC's main goals is to put PC-level performance into embedded devices. Its VR5500-based T-Engine implementation can run at 800 MIPS with a 400 MHz clock, which allows it to process video signals without a DSP. Since it runs on only 2 watts of power, it doesn't need a cooling fan, but battery life is short due to high power consumption. The company is also trying to figure out ways to make the already small T-Engine boards more compact. It has developed a snap-off part for its T-Engine board, and its VR4131-based µT-Engine, the CPU of which runs at 340 MIPS on only 220 milliwatts of power, has no parts on the back. Believe it or not, the company's goal is to reduce the size of T-Engine by half to 50 mm x 50 mm x 20 mm, and to reduce µT-Engine to 23 mm x 23 mm x 2 mm while lowering power consumption to 0.5 watt. NEC is also cooperating with Hitachi to ensure that its board can be used in conjunction with Hitachi's T-Engine board, and it has also developed a programmable logic device (PLD) board with a 150-gate PLD.

Mitsubishi Electric's M32104-based µT-Engine implementation does 243 MIPS with a 216 MHz clock, which gives it modest speed when compared to NEC's T-Engine implementation. But what really makes it interesting is that it is equipped with an electronic eye, referred to "artificial retina" or AR, which allows engineers to do all sorts of interesting experiments. In fact, on the third day of the show when there were technical demonstration sessions of the various development kits, a representative of Mitsubishi Electric showed how easy it was to use the AR. He programmed the device in front of the audience and took 166 x 144 dot photos of the audience that were processed in 10 to 50 milliseconds. Basically, the programmer has to learn how to use the input/output ports and set the timer and interrupt handler. Using a LAN board, these pictures can then be sent around the Internet. And these can be sent in encrypted form using the firm's Misty encryption system with a 124-bit key that has been made public.

Hitachi is the pioneer in the T-Engine field, which is why its T-Engine implementations have been used in a lot of products developed to date. Its T-Engine implementations are also the most developed. At present, there are five blocks to Hitachi T-Engines: a CPU board, a battery power supply board, an LCD board, a LAN expansion board, and a debugging expansion board. One interesting feature of the company's T-Engine implementations is that they have a dual bus, i.e., SH and PCI buses, running at 60 MHz and 33 MHz respectively, which is why they can be interfaced with NEC's PCI-bus-based T-Engine. In addition, the company is developing a µT-Engine implementation based on the firm's SH7145 (SH2) microprocessor. Hitachi engineers have already developed a remote control robot car based on this, which they demonstrated at the show. For the future, the firm is planning to develop a multitask debugger and various types of middleware to support and enhance its boards.

Yokogawa Digital Computer, the embedded systems specialist subsidiary of Yokogawa Electric Corporation, is the ARM microprocessor architecture specialist in the T-Engine project. The company has jointly developed T-Engine implementations using Epson (ARM 720 core), Motorola (ARM 920 core), and Oki Electric (ARM 920 core) microprocessors, which are widely used in cell-phones due to their power saving functions. What makes Yokogawa Digital Computer different, however, is that it views itself as a middleman between users and semiconductor makers, middleware vendors, and Personal Media. The company also supports non-ARM-based T-Engine implementations, such as those from Fujitsu, Hitachi, and NEC, and it provides that support with a T-Engine in-circuit emulator (ICE) and MS Windows-based integrated development environment. In addition, the company is offering to do network and wireless communication middleware development on a commission basis for its customers.

More µITRON Developments and Some Great Middleware for T-Engine Also Described

On the first and second days of TRON SHOW 2003, there were multiple presentations about software products. Interestingly, there were several presentations about µITRON implementations other than T-Kernel, which is the standard µITRON-based RTOS for T-Engine. For example, Grape Systems Inc. described ThreadX-µITRON, a µITRON3.0/4.0-compliant tiny kernel (the footprint is less than 5 Kilobytes) that is very easy to use. Fujitsu introduced its µITRON4.0-based REALOS/FRV, for which there is a lot of middleware; and Accelerated Technology gave a description of its µITRON4.0-compliant Nucleus µiPLUS, for which there is also abundant middleware. MiSPO Co., Ltd., gave a presentation of its µITRON4.0-specification NORTi RTOS, which it claims is the leading commercial ITRON. The company has also developed its own memory protection function, and it is planning a Linux-NORTi hybrid OS, too. There was also a description of an open source ITRON, TOPPERS, a project in which eight companies and four public organs are participating; and Elmic Systems Inc. gave a presentation on a new µITRON3.0-specification operating systems, "Hyper ITRON," which incorporates kernel object and memory protection functions.

Development environments and middleware were also described in the theater presentation sessions. Although the standard development environment for T-Engine is the GNU-based development environment from the Free Software Foundation that runs on Linux-based computers, commercial development environments, such as "eBinder for T-Engine" from eSOL Co., Ltd., are also available. This allows developers, among other things, to use MS Windows as a cross development environment. The eBinder integrated development environment allows developers to build, load, and debug applications using sophisticated tools, such as PartScope, which monitors the internal status of software components in real time, and EventTrek, which analyzes in various ways how events in the target system are executed. This development system supports processors based on the ARM, SH, and MIPS architectures. The company is also offering eParts, which are a collection of middleware for the T-Engine platform.

Since cell-phones, which are for the most part µITRON-based, are more popular than personal computers in Japan, there were descriptions of the latest software for cell-phones. Aplix Corporation described its "JBlend for T-Engine," which is a Java on ITRON implementation re-engineered to run on top of T-Kernel. Since JBlend has already been installed in 12 million devices, there is a chance that middleware from those devices might migrate to the T-Engine platform and on to other devices. Then there was a description of HI Corporation's "Mascot Capsule Engine Micro3D," which is an extremely small three-dimensional rendering engine that runs on cell-phones. Version 3 of this rendering engine is a mere 150 Kilobytes in size, and it only requires a processor with a clock running at 10 MHz or better to render 256 x 256 dot 3D image, which is twice as good as version 2. This software, which is compatible with operating systems used by Sony and Motorola, can be used for realistic photo modeling, and thus it could be used for 3D face modeling in passports.

Along similar lines, KDDI Corporation described "SVG Mobile Engine for T-Engine." This is a "scalable vector graphics" engine based on W3C-specified vector graphics formats. Essentially it draws, or "renders" to use the technical term, smooth curved lines in two dimensions that can be scaled up or down. It can be used both with graphic images and text. This is a highly desirable feature for on-line map services and car navigation systems that are very popular in Japan, since places are hard to find and there are frequent traffic jams in most of Japan's major cities. This is also the application that KDDI is pushing. The company's exhibit at TRON SHOW 2003 consisted of "SVG Map Viewer" running on a T-Engine board. SVG Map Viewer can zoom in and out, scroll, and rotate map data without any degradation in quality. It can also handle hyper links embedded in the map data, and it can deal with overlaying maps that include roads, buildings, and so on.

Matsushita Graphics Communication Systems Inc. described an embedded SOAP processor that runs on top of µITRON. SOAP, which stands for "Simple Object Access Protocol," is an XML-based messaging protocol for accessing services on the World Wide Web. Interestingly, it is a technology that competes with CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture), which has been described at past TRON symposia. Being lighter than CORBA and having a simple message exchange mechanism, it is envisioned as a technology that will allow more decentralization, and eventually grid computing. It has already been tested in a California traffic system. Matsushita said it is planning to apply the SOAP processor to document machines (facsimile machines, photocopiers, printers, and multi-function peripherals) and document systems (clients and servers plus document machines) connected together via networks that use the Internet's protocols.

T-Engine Panel Discussion

At the end of the second day's theater sessions, there was a panel discussion in which Prof. Ken Sakamura and eight others took part. Prof. Sakamura began the discussion by pointing out that the T-Engine project was begun to make embedded systems development more efficient. In the past, each embedded systems house developed its own middleware for its own development boards, but now that they have a series of common development boards based on T-Engine specifications, they can pool their middleware and thus rationalize system development. Moreover, these boards are priced lower than similar boards in the past, which is not to mention the fact that they are considerably smaller. The first T-Engine development board by Hitachi was marketed at a mere 145,000 yen less tax. In addition, they are equipped with the eTRON security chip, which is a unique feature as far as embedded system platforms are concerned.

The second development board was developed by Mitsubishi Electric. This was the business-card-size µITRON board, which sports an artificial retina. Mitsubishi Electric's Toru Shimizu said the small µITRON board was further reduced in size to produce the mobile IP telephone his firm recently developed. Mr. Shimizu said he particularly liked the T-Engine project's software distribution idea, but the platforms were also important for producing new platforms. Once Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric had finished their boards, other companies had "models" on which to based their T-Engine implementations. Mr. Katsuhiko Neki of NEC Electronics said it took his company only six months to create its T-Engine and µITRON implementations. And all of these boards are supported with in-circuit emulators, said Mr. Chiharu Takei of Yokogawa Digital Computer. He said he likes the idea of ubiquitous computing, and thus his company brought the power-saving ARM-based processor to the project.

Mr. Tatsuya Izumina of Personal Media, whose firm makes the BTRON3-specification-based Cho Kanji operating system, pointed out another advantage of the T-Engine project, which is a "common object format." In the past, he noted, everyone had their own object format. Mr. Shinobu Nemoto of Aplix, whose firm makes the leading mobile Java implementation on the market, JBlend, later noted that in the past everyone wanted Java on ITRON, or JTRON, immediately, but bringing Java to ITRON wasn't that easy, since there were minor differences among the various ITRON implementations. Since there is stronger standardization with T-Engine, that problem doesn't exist with T-Engine. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't know what Java is. Mr. Nemoto said a lot of people coming to the Aplix booth at the show were asking what products the firm was selling. He said he was jealous of the hardware makers, who had an easier time explaining what they're doing.

Mr. Kazuhiro Kayashima, the president of PIN CHANGE that produced the T-Engine-based educational terminal called the "TEA Terminal," described the process through which it was created. Prof. Sakamura requested that he create it and immediately asked Mr. Hiroyuki Yamada of Hitachi to send Mr. Kayashima a standard T-Engine board. That was too slow, so Mr. Yamada sent him a second board with a 200 MHz CPU. His company then developed the educational terminal in three weeks, which surprised even Prof. Sakamura. At the show, the company displayed a second cheaper model with a smaller liquid crystal display that its plans market for only 35,000 yen, as opposed to 60,000 yen for the standard model. Mr. Kayashima also described the "BB-Toaster & Bread," (there's a picture here in this Japanese article) a PDA that gathers information for the user and then pops up from a base stand when it has finished its assigned tasks. This "change of use" in computing is where the company gets its name from, he said.

Prof. Sakamura and Prof. Noboru Koshizuka, both of the University of Tokyo, got into a discussion of the General Public License, which is the core philosophy behind the open source code in the GNU/Linux project. Since it forces people who make modifications to the operating system to make them part of the public domain, it is considered "cancerous" by Microsoft Corporation. Interestingly, many Japanese embedded systems developers don't like the GPL either, because it forces them to give away proprietary know-how. This is not to say that the TRON Project does not make software open and freely available. Prof. Sakamura pointed out that the T-Engine Forum is working on T-Collection, a collection of algorithms that never change. Prof. Koshizuka added that there is also T-Format for global naming. However, the project does not use the GPL, and thus it allows people to make money from their proprietary know-how without revealing it to others.

Prof. Sakamura also pointed out another problem with the Linux kernel for embedded systems, and that is that it cannot be used in hard real-time systems. For the Linux kernel, real-time performance is calculated in terms of milliseconds, while for ITRON it is calculated in microseconds. This makes the Linux kernel totally unsuited for certain automotive applications, such as engine control. Prof. Sakamura said it would dangerous to ride in an automobile based on embedded Linux. Another advantage embedded ITRON has over embedded Linux is in the lower cost of development hardware. "T-Engine is cheap," Mr. Kayashima pointed out. Prof. Sakamura, noted that there are PCs on the market for $199, but they have no software, and they cannot operate using low-power 96 MHz microprocessors. Mr. Yamada said that Hitachi will release a new T-Engine version in January 2003 with a 240 MHz processor that will be very cheap and yet able to do 3D graphics.

Prof. Sakamura brought up another advantage of a common platform, and that is that it makes developing new microprocessors less risky. Mr. Shimizu said that's because in the past microprocessor developers didn't have all the surrounding hardware and middleware available to them. He also made the interesting observation that with a standard platform such as T-Engine, the risk to middleware developers goes down too. It is for such reasons that Prof. Sakamura believes T-Engine will become the leader in several years. Mr. Kayashima, who believes that the embedded systems will become more important than PCs in the future, once again stressed that price also, and not just performance, is important. He added that services also will become part of low-cost items, and he believes that the eTRON security architecture is another thing that makes it possible to recommend T-Engine. For developers, Mr. Izumina said, the ability to port without the need for source code is a great plus.

During the question and answer period during which questions were accepted from the floor, one person asked about the quality of software for cell-phones, which he regarded as poor. Mr. Nemoto replied that companies want to get services out as quickly as possible and thus they overlook little differences when porting. Mr. Takei replied that most companies just try to use something that already exists, and Mr. Yamada said cheap phones use Linux software without any modifications. Another question was about how device drivers for special LSIs would be handled. Prof. Koshizuka replied that it shouldn't be a problem, since they would be additions to the T-Engine specification. Mr. Izumina pointed out that you need APIs to write the drivers. Finally, Prof. Sakamura said that if any company wants to create something strange for T-Engine, they have to take responsibility for it and port it to the T-Engine platform.

Technical Sessions and Interesting Exhibits

On the morning of the third day of TRON SHOW 2003, there was a series of technical sessions aimed at hackers to show them the basics of programming T-Engine and µT-Engine. There are currently five developments kits that have been put on the market by Personal Media. These range in price from 145,000 to 198,000 yen (consumption tax not included), and more are scheduled to be released in 2003. These kits are, of course, aimed at developers and/or hobbyists who do development work. For that reason, they use a command line interpreter interface, just like the original IBM-PC used. The standard development environment is a "cross development environment" based on an IBM-PC/AT-compatible personal computer loaded with the GNU/Linux operating system, but as noted above, MS Windows-based development environments are also available. Since time was limited, the three demonstrations were based on very simple programming examples. Two of them were based on calculators, while the third was a demonstration of how to employ the artificial retina that comes as standard equipment on Mitsubishi Electric's µT-Engine implementation.

At TRON SHOW 2003, there were many interesting exhibits. Ironically, two that have tremendous ramifications for the coming age of ubiquitous computing were in the corners. One was the T-Engine Forum's exhibit where a Ubiquitous ID demonstration was carried out. When a consumer item with an RFID chip in it was placed over a reader, the reader identified it with synthesized voice output, which is a great feature for the visually disabled (see below). As noted above, a similar system is under development at MIT in the U.S. However, since the TRON Project is planning a more capable system with more identification data and thus more applications, the RFID chips for Ubiquitous IDs will be more expensive. In addition to the problem of competing standards--and the trade politics it might give rise to--there is also the problem of privacy. In the U.S., where draconian security legislation has been enacted following the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, this type of technology is being viewed as a threat to privacy by civil libertarians.

The other interesting exhibit was a Shinkansen model train set at the Personal Media booth. When the train passed over a sensor inside the tracks, a T-Engine panel in the front of the exhibit displayed information about the "location." One day in the future, both Japanese and foreigners traveling through Japan's ubiquitous high-speed railways will use T-Engine-based devices in the same manner to gather information about the places they are passing through. As has already been demonstrated at the University of Tokyo's Digital Museum and at technology exhibitions in Japan, this data can be matched to user profiles for age, native language, personal interests, etc. The key to getting this type of information service accepted is, of course, to allow people to opt out of it if they so choose, and, more importantly, to allow them to protect their privacy. These things are "no-brainers" in a country like Japan, where there is very strong respect for the privacy of individuals, and thus it is that technology of this type is being developed in Japan with much less opposition than elsewhere.

TEPS 2003: Identifying with the Ubiquitous Communicator, Seeing with Cell-Phones

On the afternoon of the third day of TRON SHOW 2003, TRON Electronics Prosthetics Symposium (TEPS) 2003, which is popularly known as the "Enableware symposium," was held in the show's theater. As usual, it was crowded with the disabled and their helpers, plus volunteers who did simultaneous interpretation using sign language. Also as usual, there were some engineers from technology companies who had secretly come on their own. We usually find out about these engineers because they like to ask questions and make comments during the question and answer session. This shows that some technology developers are taking social responsibilities seriously. What was unusual this year, however, was that we had three examples of Enableware, two of which were TRON-based. In addition to NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s video camera equipped 3G cell-phone, there was a demonstration of the T-Engine-based Ubiquitous Communicator, plus a new Braille keyboard based on Enableware concepts.

The Enableware symposium began with Prof. Ken Sakamura giving a keynote lecture. Once again, he talked about the goals of the TRON Project and why Enableware is important. The TRON Project, he told the audience, is a project that for the last 20 years has been thinking of how best to apply computers to human society. One of the key concepts is that no one should be left out, and thus provisions for the disabled have to be included as standard features in all systems that interface with human beings. These provisions are collectively referred to as TRON electronic prosthetics, or simply as Enableware. One important concept that underlies Enableware is that these features should also be useful for other people. Enableware is useful for groups such as the elderly and children. Thus they can be be justified on the basis of cost. Prof. Sakamura pointed out that in the U.S. television captions for the hearing disabled have been mandated by law, and thus broadcasters can send captions since all televisions can handle them.

The most interesting part of Prof. Sakamura's lecture was when he described how Ubiquitous IDs can also help the disabled, which he illustrated with a demonstration using the experimental Ubiquitous Communicator developed at the YRP Ubiquitous Networking Laboratory and sample product packages in which RFID chips had been embedded. Although civil libertarians in the U.S. are up in arms over the possibility of government misuse of RFID chips--and this is a real possibility given the current political climate there--these can also be used to help the disabled. Prof. Sakamura showed the audience three milk cartons, which were labeled ordinary milk, coffee milk, and oolongcha (a Chinese tea drink popular in Japan). The Ubiquitous Communicator correctly identified all three packages using three types of output: a picture of the product, a written description of the product, and a synthesized voice description of the product. Prof. Sakamura pointed out that the Ubiquitous Communicator can also recognize individual merchandise items, not just product lines.

However, Prof. Sakamura's vision for this technology doesn't stop at merely enabling the disabled to shop as easily as people without disabilities. He also showed pictures of how it could be used with map displays, of which there are many in Tokyo; signboards; and even trees (in Tokyo, a lot of trees sport written signs informing passersby of the name of the species). In the case of a tree, he said, you can learn not only about the type of tree you are passing, but even who manages it. Of course, Prof. Sakamura also talked about one of his favorite Ubiquitous ID examples, which is a refrigerator that can communicate with the Ubiquitous-ID-tagged food items in it. This actually makes more sense for a visually disabled person, because it would allow a visually disabled person to live without so much help from the able-bodied. The same goes for a Ubiquitous Communicator ring, for example, which would allow a visually disabled person to quickly identify the medicine bottle he or she had to take medicine from.

Although many of the people in the audience didn't understand what he was talking about, Prof. Sakamura explained that the forthcoming version of Internet technology, referred to as IPv6, is not what the world of ubiquitous computing is all about. Ubiquitous computing involves the creation of various types of networks, and thus a Ubiquitous Communicator must be able to operate in multiple types of network environments. He also said that the GNU/Linux operating system is not good for a Ubiquitous Communicator, although he praised it as a good workstation and development operating system. He also brought up a concept that hasn't been talked about since the 1980s, i.e., "communication." Alan Kay proposed that computers should be for people to communicate with themselves and others. Prof. Sakamura expanded on that, saying they should also be for people to communicate with things. Back in the 1980s when he proposed this third type of communication, a lot of people laughed at him, but no one is laughing any more.

Following Prof. Sakamura's keynote lecture, Mr. Sadao Hasegawa, a Japanese Braille specialist, gave a presentation on his efforts to employ NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s 3G cell-phones, the services for which are officially referred to as Freedom Of Mobile multimedia Access (FOMA), in aiding the visually disabled. These cell-phones, incidentally, can also be used by the hearing impaired if they are equipped with vibrator alarms and connected to sign language interpretation centers. Mr. Hasegawa uses them in conjunction with the TeleSupport NET (the Japanese home page is here), which is a kind of "seeing eye" service that takes video feed from a video camera equipped 3G cell-phone held by a visually disabled person and channels it into a center where sighted people can interpret the physical environment for the person carrying the 3G cell-phone. Mr. Hasegawa has been waiting for this for a long time. About 10 years ago, he heard from Prof. Sakamura that this technology would become a reality, and he was elated at the idea of being able to actually see products in stores.

Unfortunately, like all new technologies, the video camera equipped cell-phone presents a new set of problems for its users. Specifically, the resolution of the video camera is low, it can't be used in low light conditions, there are difficulties using it underground because of the antenna, and it is expensive to use--costing 80 yen per minute at present. On the last point, NTT DoCoMo has introduced a new PHS cell-phone, the Lookwalk P751v, which is much cheaper to use and thus the problem of cost is being addressed. The connection fee for FOMA cell-phones has to come down to at least 10 yen per minute for it to come into widespread use by the visually disabled. However, he said that this technology is a big step forward. To prove it, he showed a video clip of himself using a FOMA cell-phone to obtain directions on how to make a purchase from a vending machine. In the past, he said, the visually disabled didn't know about vending machines, and even if they knew about them, they didn't know what they sold.

As a result of over a year's worth of experiments using a 3G cell-phone equipped with a video camera, Mr. Hasegawa has come to some conclusions about applying the technology in its present form to the task of helping the visually disabled. First, he discovered it is difficult to walk around the city using a video camera equipped 3G cell-phone, since it is difficult to find out what's in front of you. In particular, he said, it shouldn't be used on train platforms and in the vicinity of automobiles. This is understandable, since an automobile could be traveling above the speed limit, which would make it difficult for the remote sighted person to spot it in time, even if the video camera was pointed in the direction that it was coming from. However, since they are improvement over the past, Mr. Hasegawa believes centers should be established to loan them to people and that a 24-hour service should be created to support their users. He also believes such a center could support Japanese visually disabled people overseas.

After Mr. Hasegawa gave his presentation, Mr. Yoshitake Misaki, a high school mathematics teacher at the Tokyo Metropolitan Hachiouji School for the Blind, gave a presentation--using a BTRON machine!--on human machine interfaces and their impact on the visually disabled. Mr. Misaki has been fighting a long running battle with JR East, the privatized portion of the former national railway company that services the Tokyo area, over making their ticket machines accessible to the visually disabled. His efforts toward this end go back seven years. Mr. Misaki said making things barrier free for the disabled is problem everywhere, even in the U.S. where the Americans with Disabilities Act has been passed into law. He said one of his American colleagues, Ms. Dona Sauerburger of the Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association, is working to rectify the problem there. Mr. Misaki said he believes the solution for getting through ticket wickets is to create a "universal pass" for the disabled, which is something that could be easily created in a world of Ubiquitous IDs.

Following Mr. Misaki's presentation, there was a panel discussion that consisted of the above three speakers, plus Ms. Setsuko Egami, director of the Frontier Service Research Laboratory of the JR East Research and Development Center, and Mr. Masahito Saigusa of NTT DoCoMo. Ms. Egami said that she is going to study how to make the company's train stations better, and she was surprised at how Mr. Hasegawa was using the 3G cell-phone and the TeleSupport NET that is supports it. She said she believes that technicians must not think of their own needs, and that test data must not be so limited. Mr. Saigusa made an interesting comment about the development of FOMA handsets that are equipped with video cameras. He said the engineers wanted to know if they really needed to develop high-speed imaging--"isn't it too fast?" they asked. Accordingly, he said he believes that there is a need for more communication between users and makers.

Ms. Egami brought up an interesting point, which is that there is the possibility that other people could get angry at being photographed by Mr. Hasegawa when he uses his FOMA video equipped cell-phone to navigate, particularly if they didn't realize he was visually disabled. Believe it or not, there have been cases in Japan of one minor secretly taking another minor's photograph with a camera equipped i-mode cell-phone and posting it on the Internet with derogatory or misleading information; and, worse, there have been incidents of sex fiends photographing the underwear of women on escalators by getting behind and below them on an ascending escalator. Accordingly, she said NTT should create an environment for the public use of this device by the visually disabled. Prof. Sakamura said, efforts should be made to get the point across that the video function should only be used when talking.

As to JR East's ticketing machines, Mr. Misaki said they have improved a lot since he took up the problem. Ms. Egami said that JR East's hardware and software divisions are working hard to make train stations barrier free. She said she believes large train stations definitely need information centers, and that Prof. Sakamura's ubiquitous technology should be incorporated into them. However, it will take time to study, Ms. Egami added, perhaps five years. Prof. Sakamura, giving a hint of what is to come, said a Ubiquitous Communicator could be used for that purpose. Ms. Egami countered that "custom services" are needed, which is not to mention better computers. She said she believes personal computers at present have too much software installed in them. Mr. Saigusa responded that software is based on some sales point, which the engineers develop into a particular application that gets sold.

It was left to Mr. Hasegawa, the visually disabled member of the panel discussion, to bring up barriers to the visually disabled that have nothing to do with computers. He noted that in Japan there is not more than 1 millimeter difference in size among different denominations of yen notes, but in Europe there is a difference of five to six millimeters among the different denominations of euro notes. On that point, he said, Japan lacks the common sense of a primary school student. He also pointed out that during construction to install an escalator at a train station, the Braille blocks that had been installed for the benefit of the visually disabled had been removed, which resulted in him having to take a dangerous walk of 40 to 60 meters to get around the construction area. Moreover, all the newly installed escalators are a hazard to the visually disabled, since the could fall if they used them. These things make Japan barrier full, not barrier free, he said. Prof. Sakamura lambasted for Japan being unskilled at creating general rules and/or strategies.

During the question and answer period, there were as many comments as questions. The subject of ticketing machines immediately came up, and one person opined that the tickets should remember for you where to get off, which happens to overlap with the concept that Personal Media was demonstrating in its T-Engine exhibit mentioned above. Another person noted that each cell-phone maker is doing something different and that there is no seamlessness among the makers. Mr. Misaki noted that it is important to make ticketing machines with a unified interface. He note that Sweden is going all out to make itself barrier free, and thus it is incorporating the idea of universal design into everything. Mr. Hasegawa noted that the barrier full problem has existed even before electronic technologies became available, and that ubiquitous computing is really needed. Ms. Egami reacted to the example of Sweden, and she said she would study about the problems at train stations.

Just before the Enableware symposium ended, perhaps to prevent the audience from getting the idea that Japanese companies are completely heartless in regard to the visually disabled, Prof. Sakamura asked one of his assistants to bring Yazaki Corporation's experimental "Braille Talk" terminal to the stage. This is a portable six-key Braille keyboard with voice output that can be connected to a cell-phone while on the go. It weighs only 450 grams, and will go on sale in 2003 for under 100,000 yen.

TRON SHOW 2003 Gallery


[1] These were: Mr. Yoshio Tsukio, Vice-Minister for Policy Coordination, Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications; and Mr. Hirokazu Hayashi, Director-General of the Commerce and Information Policy Bureau, Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.