Japanese Projections

After a few moments of quiet meditation, I step out of Sensoji, the oldest temple in Tokyo, walk through a cloud of incense, and pass under the massive gate to a crowded, shop-lined lane. The stores sell everything from traditional snacks to toys, electronics, and souvenirs. I buy a cell phone charm for a friend: the venerable Hello Kitty, dressed as a geisha.

Though to me the juxtaposition of ancient religion, pop culture, and high technology is striking, I get the feeling that Tokyo's residents don't think it at all unusual. After all, this is a city where the typical sightseeing tour involves trips to both ancient shrines and to Akihabara, the pulsing electronics district.

Along with four other journalists, I'm in Tokyo at the invitation of Hitachi for an inside peek at the company's digital projector factory and its development labs.

The Factory Floor

You may know that Tokyo is one of the world's largest cities, but its size never seems real until you travel through it. The journey to the projector factory in hte town of Gifu takes almost two hours by bus and shinkansen (high-speed "bullet" train), all without ever leaving an urban environment.

At the factory, we don special jackets, shoes, and hats and step into "air showers" to blow off excess dust. Then it's through the automatic doors to see projector assembly close up. We follow the projectors as they are built and watch them go through a series of tests for brightness, color saturation, and other key qualities. It's helpful to see all the steps that go into the construction, especially considering that most schools rely on projection as a teaching tool.

Gazing into the Future

Throughout the trip, I am amazed by the balance of urban and natural environments in Tokyo. Our hotel, across the street from busy Shinagawa Station, has a well-groomed garden in the back. Similarly, the Hitachi Central Research Laboratory is nestled in several acres of traditional landscaping. I imagine strolling the paths here, gazing into the koi pond, and coming up with ideas for cutting-edge technologies.

Inside the labs, we are treated to a demonstration of some of the newest products. At one workstation, a scanner reads the pattern of veins in my fingertip to determine whether I can access a specific database — a method of biometric authentication that is more secure than fingerprinting. I also pick up a small (roughly 2-inch by 3-inch) flat panel screen that maintains the same brightness when viewed from any angle, at any level of light. Unlike my current camera's screen, this organic electro-luminescent display will be visible even on very sunny days.

Perhaps most exciting for geeks and sci-fi fans, though, is the prototype for 3-D projection. The technique requires four projectors to shoot multiple images onto a circle of mirrors, which reflect onto a spinning screen at the center. As we walk around the projection unit, we can see a three-dimensional, 360-degree view of the image subject. While the cumbersome equipment for recording and projecting means we're still a long way from the holographic messages of Star Wars (see "The Force of Holography"), my mind races with ideas for how this technology might be put to use in schools — for distance learning, computer modeling, and who knows what else.

Michelle Thatcher is managing editor of T&L.