How ‘avatars’ could let you see the world — and your family — through telepresence

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Kevin Kajitani
Kevin Kajitani, co-director of ANA’s Avatar division, talks about virtual teleportation as a travel experience during the GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

When it was time for Kevin Kajitani to put his ideas for traveling through telepresence to the test, he chose a familiar experimental subject: his son.

Kajitani — the co-director of the Avatar division at ANA Holdings, the parent company of Japan’s biggest airline — set up a mobile Beam robot at his home north of Tokyo, crept into a closet, and rolled the robot out to greet his 2-year-old son Aoi with his face looking out from the video screen.

“The first time I approached my son with the avatar, he said, ‘Papa!’ And we started playing,” Kajitani said on Wednesday at a lunch talk sponsored by ANA at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

Dad ended up spoiling the effect when he came out from the closet to see his son in the flesh. “He literally froze for 15 seconds,” Kajitani said.

But over the months that followed, Kajitani used the screen-equipped, remotely steerable robot to check in with his family regularly while he was on the road. It didn’t take long for Aoi to become “completely avatar-native,” he said.

Now Kajitani’s 70-year-old mother in Seattle is also logging into the avatar to play with her grandson in Japan. “The first thing she said was, ‘I wish I had this when Grandma was alive,’ ” Kajitani told GeekWire during a follow-up interview.

Watch Kevin Kajitani’s avatar play with his son:

Kajitani’s family experience hints at what could lie ahead for others if ANA’s vision for future travel experiences come to full fruition.

The concept, which ANA calls the Avatar Vision, has already spawned a $10 million contest to develop new platforms for telepresence, melding virtual and augmented reality with touch-sensitive haptic devices and robotics.

Kajitani said ANA’s team has signed competition contracts with nearly 100 teams for the Avatar XPRIZE, following up on registrations from 820 applicants in 81 countries. And at next week’s CEATAC tech conference in Japan, ANA will announce the establishment of telepresence centers to facilitate the competition.

ANA is also working with Japan’s RIKEN research lab to develop a camera system that uses advanced image processing and data compression to create low-latency, high-definition video without requiring a high-speed connection.

So why is a company best-known for air travel getting into VR, AR and other cyber-travel technologies?

“Our company is not a company that simply operates airplanes, but rather we are a company that aims to connect, a company that aims to bridge the gaps of physical distance, time and culture that exist in our world,” said Kajitani, a former Boeing engineer who moved from the U.S. to Japan 10 years ago to join All Nippon Airways. “And within that framework, I believe that avatars fit in just perfectly.”

Kajitani and his colleagues at ANA developed the concept back in 2016, when XPRIZE put out a call for proposals relating to new technical challenges that could provide the basis for incentive prizes.

At first, Kajitani’s team proposed a Quantum Teleportation XPRIZE. “Everybody literally laughed us out of the room,” he recalled.

A diagram shows how ANA’s concept envisions connecting an avatar and its operator. (ANA Holdings Inc. / All Rights Reserved / Used With Permission)

But XPRIZE co-founder Peter Diamandis saw possibilities in the proposal. Eventually, the teleportation idea was transformed into a challenge aimed at creating new platforms for telepresence.

That’s not all: ANA partnered with business executives and government officials in Japan’s Oita Prefecture to set up a testbed for telepresence technologies, and struck a deal with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, to look into space-based telepresence applications.

Now Kajitani heads a nine-person team that’s devoted to the Avatar Vision. One of the team’s goals is to set up an experiment that could let sports fans experience the 2020 Tokyo Olympics through telepresence robots sitting in the seats.

“If you have an avatar in the front row, you could have a million people logged in to that avatar,” Kajitani said.

At the same time, the teams competing for the Avatar XPRIZE will be drawing up the concepts, building the hardware and coding the software for robotic systems capable of performing a prescribed list of tasks remotely. Those tasks could include picking up and throwing a ball, playing a board game or giving a hug. The top prize of $8 million will be awarded based on how well the tasks are performed, and how true to life the experience feels to the avatar’s operator.

If the Avatar Vision turns out the way ANA hopes, users could “avatar in” to visit faraway family and friends, or experience the sights, sounds and tactile experiences of an exotic locale. More sophisticated applications could be added to the platform as well. For example, a medical application could facilitate remote surgeries, or a shopping application could let users check out products in a brick-and-mortar store through an online connection.

“We’ve actually found that avatar shopping has a better conversion rate and a higher unit spend than a normal, actually real shopping experience,” Kajitani said. “It has some of the elements of e-commerce, where you don’t have to carry bags and you can shop a location very quickly. We believe that this technology alone, used in a different way, is going to really change the way that we connect with the world.”

Read more: Remote-controlled robots roam the office

Sports applications could be programmed to guide you through the right moves via a haptic connection. “Everybody watches golf videos that have people tell you how to golf, but why not just download Tiger Woods’ golf swing? It’ll rip your arms out, maybe, but you’ll know how he swings,” Kajitani said. “You’ll know how to play golf really well.”

Kajitani said ANA is focusing on developing new platforms for telepresence — that is, the operating system or API interface that enables people to avatar in to a remote location, as if they were flying there on an airplane. It’d be up to other companies to create the apps for what users do once they get there.

He said there’d have to be security measures built in — to authenticate users and make sure that their avatars don’t hurt people or property. Privacy issues would have to be addressed. And Kajitani acknowledged that avatars could theoretically be used for X-rated purposes, as portrayed in dozens of sci-fi movies and TV shows.

“It’s obviously not an area that we as a company are going to pursue … but I think the interest is a barometer,” he said. “It’s kind of a pun, but the sex appeal of the technology is very visible.”

Special thanks to Kevin Kajitani for sharing the video of an avatar encounter with his son.



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