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Japanese startup's wall-sized screens adjoin any two rooms

Ex-Google engineers aim to stem country's rural exodus

One reason people concentrate in crowded cities -- to be where the best jobs are -- could fall by the wayside when space-fusing technology is refined. (Courtesy of Tonari)

TOKYO -- As Japan's population continues to concentrate in greater Tokyo, one startup thinks it has parts of a solution for all the hometowns being abandoned by young people: telepresence.

The technology to fuse together two rooms in two locations anywhere in the world already exists, but it often fails to go beyond underwhelming conference systems. What Tonari, which means neighbor in Japanese, wants to do is bring down costs for commercial versions of wall-size portals, create a profitable business and use some of the proceeds to fund a nonprofit that will help Japan deal with the hollowing out of its rural communities.

"All the building blocks necessary to make Tonari a reality are here," said Ryo Kawaguchi, Tonari's co-founder and chief technician. Kawaguchi, who worked at Google Japan for six years as a senior Google Maps engineer, added that the company's product will give young people leaving towns and villages for more prosperous lives in Tokyo and Osaka a reason to stay put.

According to the 2018 Report on Internal Migration in Japan, compiled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the Tokyo metropolitan area -- which also includes the prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba -- was Japan's only major economic zone to carve out a net population gain for itself. Its attracted a net 139,868 residents last year, according to the report.

Japan's two other large economic engines, greater Nagoya (the prefectures of Aichi, Gifu and Mie) and greater Osaka (which also includes the prefectures of Hyogo, Kyoto and Nara) lost 7,376 and 9,438 dwellers, respectively.

Only eight of Japan's 47 prefectures experienced net population gains in 2018, according to the report.

The trends are clear. More Japanese believe they can better eke out a living in big metropolises, especially Tokyo, and more urbanites want the convenience of living in the core of their big burgs, close to their workplaces.

Taj Campbell, Shiro Gonoo, Alisaun Fukugaki, Alvaro Arregui Falcon and Ryo Kawaguchi are working on making neighbors out of everyone, no matter where they are in the world. (Courtesy of Tonari)

Tonari's developers say their product, which goes by the same name, will make users feel like the rooms they are in have been fused into one. Installations will allow for entire walls to disappear, with high video and audio quality enhancing the illusion that two places have become a single space. The Tonari system will also allow for shared digital whiteboards, notification systems and collaboration tools.

The company has less grand goals as well -- to make it possible for patients to see doctors in faraway places, or for friends in different cities to share a meal. The hope is that Tonari technology will allow students in a classroom to interact seamlessly with their remotely located lecturer, or that it can simply enliven long-distance family interactions.

Perhaps Tonari can make life in greater Tokyo itself a little easier, too. Over half of the metropolitan area's inhabitants commute more than two hours a day. The spread of telepresence suites could give them back those hours.

The startup is banking on the fact that large screens, 4K ultrahigh-definition projectors, cameras and other pieces of hardware are becoming cheaper and more available. Tonari is also benefiting from large investments in artificial intelligence and deep learning, which will help the company's system recognize people and faces and objects.

Taj Campbell, the other co-founder and Tonari's head of product, worked at Google in California and Tokyo for eight years, five of them closely with Kawaguchi. He said Tonari is using technology in a way that can change the way people think about the way societies are built.

"Tonari will use bits, not atoms, to move people from one place to another," Campbell said, adding Tonari will be able to not only give back time that would otherwise be spent on trains but also reduce the cost of living. The team believes Tonari will allow users to work more efficient schedules, leaving them with more family time as well as time to pursue hobbies.

The company got on its feet in April, 2017. By the end of the same year, the team behind it was awarded a grant from the Nippon Foundation, a private NPO with a social mission. The grant, a result of winning the Social Innovator Excellence Award, pays Tonari 50 million yen ($450,000) per year for three consecutive years.

Hayato Hanaoka, the program director at Nippon Foundation, said most projects the NPO supports are not necessarily financially sustainable. Tonari, Hanaoka said, might prove to be an exception. "We picked this team because it is trying to tackle social issues by using technology that can also be profitable in the business sector," he said. "There is an expectation it can be sustainable and achieve greater social impact. Moreover, the [members], with remarkable career records, made us confident enough to commit."

The money from the foundation's first installment has been used to build a prototype that the team hopes to make functional within three to six months. Once the prototype goes into operation, it will connect Tonari's office in Tokyo and a satellite office in the coastal town of Hayama, about 50 km from the capital.

Tonari has yet to receive any venture capital but might consider a fundraising round in the near future if the team determines an injection of cash could help speed up product development and market entry.

Alisaun Fukugaki, the company's lead for business development and NPO partnerships, confirmed that the initial pilot installations will be in Japan, where the startup can leverage the country's advanced fiber-optics network.

Later, Tonari plans to expand abroad, ideally in partnerships with hardware distributors who can deliver quality products that, when paired with the company's software features and user experience, will be able to outshine the telepresence and teleconferencing solutions already on the market.

Campbell said the team has not forgotten why it is in Japan -- to be well-positioned to affect the reshaping of a society. "We constantly keep in mind our initial social mission," he said. "The idea for our product is for it to be installed in places that are used on a daily basis -- offices, clinics and classrooms -- not exclusively in seldom-used boardrooms."

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