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  • NEC's Virtual Water Tank Gives Real-World Feeling
  • November 19, 1998 (TOKYO) -- People may think they are watching fish swimming elegantly in a tank, but actually, they are looking at a mere TV monitor showing images of fish.
    A virtual water tank called "Sakana-hakkei" (scenes with swimming fish) is a combination of thin water tanks displayed in front of an HDTV monitor.

    It is a simple optical illusion, but it attracts passersby to stop and look at the "Sakana-hakkei" water tank. The BizTech News Department looks at who brought this virtual water tank into the real world and how.

    BizTech asked Shinji Kataoka (right), sales promotion manager of NEC's Imageum Business Promotion Division, and Hiroko Namiki (left), assistant manager of Imageum Business Promotion Division, about the development process of "Sakana-hakkei" and user profiles of the product. Both Kataoka and Namiki are members of the team that developed "Sakana-hakkei."

    "Sakana-hakkei" has reportedly been sold not only for business users, but also for individuals. NEC has sold 5,000 units in total since it was put on sale in August 1995.

    NEC, confident about a successful outcome, launched sales of "Sakana-hakkei Junior" in July 1998, mainly targeting small-size stores and individual users. It is reported to have achieved favorable sales of the "Junior" version, which has a smaller water tank and a lower price. Shipments reached approximately 2,000 units three months after its introduction.

    BizTech: How did you get the idea to develop "Sakana-hakkei?"

    Kataoka: I got an idea during an experiment using broadband ISDN in cooperation with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. We came up with a test broadcast of large-volume, high-definition images. For content, we thought fish would be appropriate for the home, and we could make the most of B-ISDN capabilities.

    We thought it was a good idea to create a virtual aquarium that doesn't require securing a massive volume of sea water or fresh water. It also is hard to find a location for a real aquarium. That's why we focused on fish.

    I also figured that if a virtual aquarium could be created, it would be appreciated by not only Japanese people, but also people in other parts of the world.

    In the first place, an electronic aquarium was established in the Keihanna academic district in the Kansai region (near Osaka) in May 1995. When we set up a huge screen for HDTV video and broadcast with the images of live-size whale sharks videotaped in the Bay of Ise continuously, local residents were quite pleased. It had a strong impact on them, giving them a feel of actually being in the water that no home television could match.

    Having been encouraged by such favorable results, the "Sakana-hakkei" was developed for displaying smaller fish and living creatures in a device similar to a water tank in an attempt to bring a huge water tank into homes.

    BizTech: Although an effort was made to display images in a more familiar way, it may be expensive to purchase a "Sakana-hakkei" tank for a mere hobby, don't you think? (*see the following details)

    Namiki: The set can be widely used as a visual interior because of market demand not only for business purposes but also for individual uses.

    Many individuals are fond of tropical fish. But unlike actual feeding of fishes, they do not need to feed them at all, even when they are away from home for long holidays. For them, stuff like adjusting temperatures, etc. that would keep them on their toes is not necessary. The tank doesn't smell and needs no cleaning. What's the best thing about it, though, is that the fish do not die.

    For business use, water tanks are placed, for example, in a hotel lobby, waiting rooms of companies and hospitals, railway stations and airports. In particular, it may be a merit to replace a real tank with "Sakana-hakkei" because of hygienic problems at medical care institutions. In fact, more supermarkets and restaurants are now using the "Sakana-hakkei" tank instead of real fish.

    BizTech: What kinds of fish are popular?

    Namiki: Goldfish and river fish and jellyfish that went on sale recently are gaining great popularity. Viewers appear to have been comforted with the bright body color and swinging motion they show. Many inquiries are being made by tropical fish lovers about Arowana and Discus. Arowana fish are difficult to find and Discus are hard to feed. The latter are known as the king of tropical fish.

    Thus, we choose rare kinds of fish on purpose for the contents. Fish lovers welcome them because they feel obtaining or feeding those kinds of fish is very difficult. We made repeated trips to aquariums to study such kinds of fish. With this business, all of us are now very good at fish names.

    BizTech: Do you edit video contents, maybe choosing some fancy movements of the fish?

    Kataoka: No editing is made to the video itself. However, it is really endless hard work to shoot a long time and have excellent, continuous video of up to 30 minutes recorded on a laser disc.

    For example, since river fish have their own living territories, we built a temporary studio along the river bank to have a video session to shoot the way they live in the most natural way.

    The crew had to wait before instantaneous movements of creatures could be captured. It was necessary for them to adjust the water temperature or replace water plants, or sometimes they had to make a trick, so that the fish would start swimming vividly or show some attractive movements.

    BizTech: Do you have any tentative plan to prepare software to show reptiles, which are becoming popular as pets, or possibly some other small creatures?

    Kataoka: Yes, we have a plan for that, but images may be limited to those of animals whose movements are fun to watch. However, the "Sakana-hakkei" may not be for animals that people are tempted to pick up and hold in their hands. So fireflies rather than reptiles may be interesting.

    Our company will certainly wish to grow from the water tank business in the future, but larger-sized products will be available when plasma display panels are used. Small-sized devices using thin-film transistor liquid-crystal displays may also be developed.

    Instead of merely feeding virtual pets, people will possibly be able to have pseudo-experiences, like basking in the woods, when the system is larger. Or we can use smaller-sized systems as moving ornaments in the form of hanging pictures or photo stands.

    [*Details] Specifications of Sakana-hakkei External dimensions: 809mm wide x 668mm deep x 793mm high Weight: Approximately 130kg Price: Market price (Sakana-hakkei system with image software, specifically designed shelf: approximately 2 million yen (US$16,600); 3 years' lease available for approximately 60,000 yen (US$500)/month) Software price: 80,000 yen each (laser disc; US$665)

    Sakana-hakkei Junior specifications External dimensions: 580mm wide x 468mm deep x 405mm high Weight: approximately 35kg Price: 488,000 yen (US$4,060) Software price: 38,800 yen each (smart card; US$320)

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    Related story: NEC Markets Low-Priced Version of Virtual Fish Bowl

    (BizTech News Dept.)

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    Updated: Wed Nov 18 16:56:14 1998 PDT