January 4, 2017 7:00 pm JST

5 products and services that wowed us in 2016

Nikkei Awards for Excellence highlight the future of fun, farms and family cars

Toshiba Medical's Aplio i-series ultrasound system

TOKYO -- From augmented reality to self-driving vehicles, a host of new technologies became entrenched in the mainstream last year. The 2016 Nikkei Superior Products and Services Awards honor the best of the bunch -- innovations that not only became hits in their own right, but that also blazed trails for the tech of tomorrow.

Here are five recipients of the highest awards -- the Nikkei Awards for Excellence. 

1) "POKEMON GO" (Niantic and Pokemon) 

Take a smartphone camera and GPS. Add some cartoon monsters. What do you get? A global phenomenon. 

This augmented reality smartphone game, in which players catch characters from the ever-popular Pokemon franchise, displays graphics on top of real-world street scenes and maps. Released in July by U.S. developer Niantic, it captured the attention of young and old alike: Downloads topped 500 million in September, making it one of the most successful smartphone games ever.   

Amid the fun and games, however, the app got the world talking about the potential dangers of smartphones. Traffic accidents have been blamed on drivers playing "Pokemon Go" behind the wheel. 

2) SERENA (Nissan Motor)

Nissan's minivan is the first vehicle to feature sophisticated autonomous driving technology with a price tag below 3 million yen ($25,380).

The automaker's ProPilot system uses a camera positioned at the top of the windshield to track lane markers and measure the distance to the car up ahead. Under certain conditions, the system can control the accelerator, brake and steering wheel. This makes it a level 2 self-driving system, according to an international scale. For comparison, a level 4 system would be capable of driving itself for an entire trip.

Nissan targeted monthly sales of 8,000 units when it put the new Serena on the market in August. In the first month, it took orders for more than 20,000. Of those, 70% were for vehicles equipped with ProPilot.

3) RICE TRANSPLANTER (Kubota)

Even experienced farmers can have a tough time planting rice in straight rows, particularly when machinery gets stuck in the mud. Japanese agricultural equipment maker Kubota designed its latest rice transplanter to solve that problem.

Thanks in part to GPS technology, the machine moves in a straight line even if the driver lets go of the wheel. Better planting improves the effectiveness of fertilizers and other agrichemicals, increasing rice yields. This kind of efficiency could help Japan's increasingly labor-squeezed farm sector.

A model capable of planting eight rows of rice at a time starts at 3.92 million yen, about 400,000 yen more than its predecessor. Kubota put the planter on sale in September and sold about 500 units in the first four months. The company plans to market the product in other Asian markets, too.

4) APLIO I-SERIES (Toshiba Medical Systems) 

The Aplio i-series refers to Toshiba Medical Systems' range of top-of-the-line ultrasound equipment. The company completely revamped the hardware and software to enable clearer imaging of internal organs and other parts of the body.

Toshiba Medical Systems says the combination of its proprietary processing technology and ceramic hardware for sending and receiving ultrasonic waves reveals tissue structures in a way that makes it easier for doctors to make diagnoses. Three models are available in the series, with the most expensive priced at 190 million yen.

5) MERCARI (Mercari)

Japanese company Mercari's eponymous flea market app allows users to buy and sell items among themselves.

Exhibiting a product is as simple as snapping a photo of it with a smartphone. Everything from clothing and baby goods to home appliances and cars are traded via the app. 

Launched in July 2013, Mercari has been downloaded more than 40 million times in Japan and 20 million times outside Japan. It is especially popular with teens and 20-somethings. Helping drive the app's popularity in Japan is the ease of shipping: Sellers can drop off their packages at selected convenience stores or at outlets of parcel delivery company Yamato Transport. 

About the 2016 Nikkei Superior Products and Services Awards

The winners of the 35th annual awards were chosen from 243 new products and services covered in 2016 by The Nikkei, The Nikkei Business Daily, The Nikkei MJ(Marketing Journal), The Nikkei Veritas, The Nikkei Online Edition and the Nikkei Asian Review. In addition to the Nikkei Awards for Excellence, other awards were handed out in the name of individual publications. The Nikkei Asian Review Award for Excellence, which covered goods and services released by Asian companies, went to Indonesian motorcycle taxi-hailing service Go-Jek.

(Nikkei)

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