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  • 'Internet Refrigerator' Seen as Futuristic Home Server: V Sync President
  • August 13, 1998 (TOKYO) -- V Sync Technology, a venture company located in Okayama prefecture, has built a prototype refrigerator that incorporates an Internet Net terminal. A bizarre novelty product at first glance, the "Internet refrigerator" embodies design features that anticipate how the digital revolution might transform homes in the future.
    The president of V Sync Technology, Katsuma Fujii (photo), has a background in developing arcade game machines and kiosk information terminals. In an interview with Shunichi Fujita, editor-in-chief of "Nikkei Personal Computing," Fujii described his vision of the networked home in a digital world.

    Nikkei Personal Computing: How did you come to make the Internet refrigerator?

    Fujii: It's part of the Okayama Information Highway project, a regional government initiative aimed at providing a high-speed Internet environment using cable TV networks and a wide area network (WAN) operated by Okayama prefecture.

    The idea of making an Internet fridge first came up when I was talking with one of the project officials. He'd once been involved in establishing community consensus about a garbage incineration plant that the local government was going to construct.

    The process of building consensus boils down to using notice boards and study groups, as "offline" groupware for homes, if you will. Suppose, though, that the government could provide information in digital form. What sort of terminals would you need in the home to access this information? The refrigerator was one of several ideas we considered.

    To read a notice board at home, people aren't going to sit down in front of their TV or PC, turn it on, start their Web browser and go through all that bother. What you need is an interface like an electronic notebook or electronic organizer that people use for checking appointments.

    The next question was where to put the terminal. If you look at where notices and timetables are kept in the home, they're generally stuck on the fridge with a magnet. And the traffic flow, or tracks that people tread through the house, converge and criss-cross most of all in the kitchen and bathroom.

    So we decided to use an electronic notebook-type of interface and to mount the terminal somewhere that everyone in the family, not just the person who runs the household, passes at least once a day. That was how we got to make an experimental Internet fridge.

    Regional Intranets Designed to Use High-Speed Lines

    Nikkei: How have people reacted to the first model?

    Fujii: Lots of people have asked where they can get one and how much it costs.

    I was amused by one report after the refrigerator made the news on a Web site in the United States. An American investment consultant read the story and then wrote a report saying that he could envisage a time when someone might go to the household appliances section of a store and ask for a Compaq refrigerator. I thought that was stretching it a bit, I must admit.

    Nikkei: Could you tell us a little more about the Okayama project?

    Fujii: Right now in Okayama the prefectural government is sponsoring a trial project that involves laying broadband communication lines in homes.

    Net surfing may be one need, but the main priority is to set up regional intranets and groupware as means of utilizing the high-speed lines.

    The homes participating in the trial will have permanent connections to high-speed lines using cable modems. By next March, those homes should be receiving bulletins and other information from the local government via Internet refrigerators. We're also considering services such as online shopping and video mail.

    Nikkei: What features does the first model provide?

    Fujii: It works by both voice recognition and touch panel. You just say, "Community news," and the Web browser launches and opens to the right page. From there on, you do everything by touch panel.

    The fridge also has TV phone capability. There's a built-in global positioning system (GPS) receiver, so the fridge's current position is automatically registered on a regional intranet server. To make a call on the TV phone, you just click on a picture of the person you're calling, displayed on the on-screen map.

    A personal handy-phone system (PHS) is built into the fridge for IP address acquisition, automatic setup, and maintenance purposes. Using the PHS facility, people will be able to print stuff on a fax machine too.

    Nikkei: Personal computers wouldn't serve the same purpose?

    Fujii: Information technology could be exploited in the home in a number of different forms. Devices running Windows CE, Java terminals, and Java-enabled household appliances will all find their way into homes, I imagine.

    The trouble is, when this sort of equipment is connected to the Net, you have to protect it from outside attack. You have to provide storage drives for devices that don't have storage capacity, and you need interconnecting equipment for devices that have their own particular interface.

    So that's why the present type of personal computer, which is designed predominantly as a client machine, won't serve the purpose. Also, whereas Windows PCs change with amazing rapidity, household appliances are durables that people don't often replace.

    In the corporate world, you have PCs linked on LANs, a server in each department, and a mainframe host server in head office. If we liken the home to a workplace, then a departmental server is what's needed. Since there's no administrator, the departmental server in the home needs higher specifications than one in a company.

    Unless something drastic happens, corporate servers don't get replaced once they're deployed. They're kept for 4-5 years maybe, sometimes much longer. Some places have been known to use the same server for decades because their legacy programs are so important.

    Companies put their operations in different boxes -- they adopt the latest technology and modernize in some areas, while preserving mission-critical assets in others. The same distinctions can be applied to the home, I believe.

    A Home Server for Mission-Critical Tasks

    Nikkei: I had assumed the Internet refrigerator was a Net terminal. Are you suggesting it's more like a home server?

    Fujii: It's a home server that carries out all mission-critical tasks. That's essential, since there's no telling what users might want to do and maintenance is out of the question.

    People often say that set-top boxes, like WebTV and Windows CE terminals, are the only way to go if you want to view Web pages in the home. I can certainly see that argument.

    Connectivity to a set-top box was one of our prerequisites in making the Internet refrigerator. We've positioned the fridge as the terminating equipment that the communications provider will use when bringing a line into the home.

    Nikkei: Did you decide on the refrigerator because you needed an appliance that's always on?

    Fujii: It doesn't have to be a fridge. Anything would do, as long as there's enough space to incorporate a server. But if you try using custom microchips to fit in a TV set, the components get costly.

    If you use a refrigerator, you can still get away with a relatively large server. We decided on refrigerators because of the cost savings -- we could use components small enough to fit inside, without having to use custom microchips.

    Nikkei: What price are you aiming at commercially?

    Fujii: Tentatively, 50,000 yen (US$340) on top of the refrigerator price. That's how much the communications provider will pay for the terminating equipment. Of course, this first model costs millions of yen.

    Katsuma Fujii
    Born in Okayama prefecture; 28 years old. Quit the Department of Economics, Kagawa University without graduating; thereafter involved in the planning and production of electronic organizers, games and amusement facilities. Founded V Sync Technology in October 1996; currently president of the company. (photographer: Kazutoshi Murata)

    (return to news)

    Realated story: 'Internet Refrigerator' Aimed for 1999 Commercial Use

    (Nikkei Personal Computing)


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    Nikkei BP BizTech, Inc.
    All Rights Reserved.
    Updated: Wed Aug 12 21:00:43 1998 PDT