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Advances in Japan IT firms' 'touchless' technology boosted by virus fears

A face recognition gate at NEC Corp.'s headquarters, which can identify a person even when they are wearing a mask, is seen in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on March 30, 2020. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Michinaga)

TOKYO -- As the coronavirus continues to spread across Japan, companies are speeding up their development and utilization of products featuring "touchless" technology that can be controlled without direct physical contact.

A big drive behind the move to embrace the technology is that among the effective measures for stemming infections is avoiding touching one's own face or equipment handled by many people. Japanese firms are particularly well-versed in technologies related to this field, and the establishment of "touchless economics" has been attracting attention as the coronavirus has extended its reach across the globe.

At the headquarters of major technology firm NEC Corp. in the capital's Minato Ward, masked employees file through a gate equipped with a sensor to scan people's faces, confirm their identity, and choose whether to allow entry. Each one enters without having to remove their mask, and there's no need to produce an employee ID card either.

The gate was installed at the company on March 23. Models of similar technology used at the company up to now had struggled to identify people sporting masks. This difficulty increases the risk of infection, as removing a mask can cause the hands to come into direct contact with the mouth.

However, by analyzing the eyes or other features the latest model of the gate can confirm people's identity even if most of the face is covered. Due to the potential infection-preventing benefits of the new technology, its introduction was actually brought forward from its intended start date.

An employee in charge of its introduction at the company said, "We've had many questions about it from outside the firm, and more approaches about buying it, too." They added that the firm intends to improve its accuracy and get a version of the product to market within the first half of the financial year.

Touchless technology is also seeing greater uptake in the elevator industry. Fujitec Co., one of the sector's big hitters, has built an option into its elevators on sale from April that enables users to wave their hands close to the buttons to confirm where they want to go. The system was devised for businesses with more serious hygiene requirements, such as hospitals and factories, and its development has been years in the making.

The company says that since the spread of the coronavirus has come to prominence, they've received more queries from general-use buildings and other firms about their touchless technology. They also reported that they are going ahead with introducing it to elevators at new buildings, and investigating whether the technology could be fitted to existing elevators during renewal periods.

Both NTT Docomo Inc. and Sony Corp. have from December 2019 begun full tests of cashless payment technology which doesn't even require a customer to produce their phone from their pocket or bag to pay. Under the systems, shoppers would simply stand in front of the register they are purchasing from to complete a transaction. Both firms are forming partnerships with other businesses to speed up the practical usability of the schemes.

According to the industry body, the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association, Japanese companies had a 47% share of the global touchless sensor technology market in 2014.

NEC has top of the line facial recognition technology, while Sony boasts world-class digital sensor technology for cameras and smartphones. As the virus continues to spread, it appears that these companies will be expediting their research and development efforts.

(Japanese original by Tatsuya Michinaga, Business News Department)

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