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'Ghost in the Shell' inspires researchers in the lab

Are you ready to try on your thermo-optical camouflage raincoat?

TOKYO -- "Ghost in the Shell," an iconic Japanese sci-fi franchise hatched nearly 30 years ago, is proving to be much more than a cyberpunk fantasy. Researchers, some of them directly inspired by the story, are determined to make its mind-blowing technologies a reality.

Originally conceived in 1989 by cartoonist Shirow Masamune, the manga series centers on a female cyborg investigator, much of whose body has been replaced with synthetic parts. The story of her fight against cybercriminals was adapted into a hit anime film by director Mamoru Oshii in 1995 -- a movie said to have influenced the directors of "The Matrix."

This past spring, Hollywood released a live-action adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson.

While the tale has struck a chord with creative types, it has also made a mark on those who prefer a lab stool to a director's chair. The results may well transform our world.

The story's most recognizable bit of technological wizardry is called thermo-optical camouflage. This allows our heroine to fade into the background while chasing the bad guys. It also inspired University of Tokyo professor Masahiko Inami to develop his own version at the school's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology.

"I thought they did a great job of depicting it for a live-action film," Inami said.

When Inami demonstrates his invention, it is nothing short of magical: He disappears into a poster on the wall behind him. For now, the catch is that you have to be looking at him from a specific angle.

The secret, the professor explained, is a special raincoat made with a material that bounces light straight back in the direction of the source. Basically, the coat projects an image of what is behind him onto the front, making him virtually invisible. 

This is "augmented reality" taken to the extreme, and it has all kinds of potential. Used inside a vehicle, it could make blind spots a thing of the past, giving the driver 360-degree visibility. Inami said construction machinery makers are also interested in the technology.

Inami's specialty is something called human augmentation engineering. The idea is to bring virtual reality, augmented reality and wearable technology together to push the boundaries of what humans can do.

To this day, "Ghost in the Shell" provides Inami inspirational fodder. "The work presents one possible future, and we use technology to try to make it real," he said in his lab, where original comic books and anime DVDs rest on the shelves. "I think it embodies an ideal interplay between pop culture and technology."

Mark your calendars

Technically, there is still time to bring the world of "Ghost in the Shell" to life: The story takes place in 2029.

"This work never ceases to fascinate people," said Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, who produced an anime adaptation and served as executive producer for the Hollywood flick. "The world is finally catching up with it."

The story also provided some inspiration for a project to develop anti-cyberattack technology, involving KDDI Research, the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology and others. 

But what really sets "Ghost in the Shell" apart is its vision of the future of humanity itself. Advances in cyborg technology allow what is described as a full-body prosthesis. This lets humans -- what's left of us, anyway -- run faster, jump higher and live longer.

Also featured is a cyberbrain -- a technology that connects one's consciousness with a network, allowing transfers of huge amounts of information.

Minor spoiler alert: In the live-action version, the protagonist's body is destroyed in an accident, but she survives by replacing everything but her brain and central nerves with prosthetic parts. While she gains superhuman abilities, she experiences an identity crisis. Who is she, really? Is her soul, called a "ghost" in the story, still that of a normal human?

Are the rest of us destined to ponder such questions, too?

Even a full-body prosthesis is not as far-fetched as it seems. One company working on cyborg technology is Meltin MMI, a startup that emerged from Tokyo's University of Electro-Communications.

At Meltin MMI's office in the capital's Shibuya area, a mechanical hand is set up on a desk. When Mark Kasuya, the company's chief executive, moves his fingers, the hand makes the same movements with no apparent delay. The secret: three sensors attached to Kasuya's elbow.

When you move your fingers, a very weak electric pulse transmits the command from your brain, passing through your nerves to your muscles. Meltin MMI developed a way to analyze the pattern of this so-called myoelectricity. Its prosthetic system interprets this information and manipulates the wire-driven hand to mimic the movement.

The company started selling the hand to research institutions this spring. But for Kasuya, this is just the beginning.

"What I want to do is create a world where people can live a healthier, freer life as long as they have a brain," he said.

As a boy, Kasuya dreamed of working on such technology. "Ghost in the Shell" was not the reason he chose this path, but the manga series had a big impact on his teen years.

"I was shocked to read a manga that described where I was headed in so much detail," he said, adding that the franchise continues to inspire him.

"It helps me clearly see what we need to keep in mind, like the religious implications of a full-body prosthesis, and the benefits and disadvantages of it," he said.

Meltin MMI aims to refine the basic technology and expand it to the entire body. "By around 2029, when 'Ghost in the Shell' was supposed to take place, we want to be closer to its world than anybody else."

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