Just outside Tokyo, in a huge building of long white corridors where even employees get lost, new Japanese products are taking shape. This is the applied research center of electronics giant NEC, where scientists work on a wide variety of innovations from robotics to digital sound. A tour last week revealed what might be in store for consumers around the world.
The first is software - something of a surprise for a country so hooked on electronics hardware. Nevertheless, researcher Hidey Fukuoka is working on Site Cruise Theater, a program that turns Internet surfing into an automated slide show where users can click a single button and get a whole presentation of scrolling pages on the World Wide Web. NEC hopes to begin selling the software commercially in Japan next February.
In the same lab, researchers are working on an Internet news program that automatically adapts to users' preferences by noting which articles they read and how much time they spend on them. True, similar experiments - and more of them - are taking place in the United States. The point, however, is that Japan's electronic giants are realizing the need to push into general-purpose software to remain competitive in computers.
"Japan is behind," says Satoshi Goto, general manager of the NEC laboratory. So "we are all changing our processes from hardware to more software-oriented products." Software research spending could rise to 30 percent of the lab's total research budget, he says. Internet software is a natural target for Japan. Having arrived too late to compete in word-processing and other application software, the Japanese see the Internet as a wide-open opportunity.
Other software work at NEC is not so far along. The latest version of NEC's translation program, for example, still requires the speaker to pause between words, while new US products understand normal (or so-called continuous) speech.