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Microsoft’s Emissary in Japan

Katsushi Ikeuchi wants to change our relationship with computers.
September 1, 2005

The exquisitely wrought Buddha at Nara, the most important Buddhist statue in Japan, fills the field of view. Next comes a 13th-century temple at Bayon, Cambodia, with its 50 stone towers, each adorned with four carved faces.

The pictures appear in startling detail on the 150-degree parabolic screen, bringing viewers up close and personal with the real sites. But there’s a twist: the scenes don’t show the way things are; they show the way they were hundreds of years ago, when these masterpieces were built. The Nara Buddha has been reconstructed twice after being damaged by fires, and Bayon has endured ages of decay. But through a painstaking process of image capture, integration, and rendering, their original splendor has been restored.

Yokoso (“welcome” in Japanese) to Katsushi Ikeuchi’s Digital Archive Project, which seeks to digitally reconstruct and preserve for posterity the original states of Buddhist and Hindu carvings and other artifacts throughout Asia. The project is housed in an ultramodern lab building–the elevators here talk–at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science.

Ikeuchi, who taught for 11 years at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) before joining Japan’s top academic institution, is renowned in academic circles for his efforts to transform the way people interact with the world via computers. Beyond the archive project, he is the architect of dexterous humanoid robots that learn tasks by observing people, as well as an innovator in intelligent-highway research–projects that have made him a force in computer vision, robotics, and virtual reality.

This summer, Microsoft tapped Ikeuchi to direct its new Institute for Japanese Academic Research Collaboration. Ikeuchi will serve as Microsoft’s main connection to Japanese computer science, helping identify and fund research collaborations in robotics, wireless applications, graphics, and other areas that the company hopes will keep it on top of the world of computing.

Ikeuchi’s knowledge of East and West–and, in particular, of Microsoft–makes him a natural selection for the job, Microsoft officials say. At CMU, he mentored Harry Shum, now head of Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing, to which the new institute will report. Until recently, Ikeuchi served on the Beijing lab’s technical advisory board. Microsoft already supports work in Japanese universities.

But, says Ikeuchi, that work has been selected piecemeal. The institute, he says, seeks “to make that coherent” and in the process help Microsoft, Japan–and just about everybody else. “Technical results propagate through oral communications, not formal presentations,” Ikeuchi says. “Unfortunately, Japanese researchers have few personal contacts with Western researchers. If we can connect Japanese researchers with Microsoft Research Asia people tightly, from this, [their work] will propagate worldwide.”

Microsoft kicked off the institute by funding projects with three of Ikeuchi’s University of Tokyo colleagues, in graphics, user interfaces, and natural-language processing. The company declined to disclose funding terms. But while its research organization supports hundreds of university collaborations worldwide, Shum says, the institute, forging ties with the academic community of a single nation, marks a first for Microsoft. “If we look at this region, Japan certainly deserves some special attention,” he says. “Now we put all these programs under this umbrella.”

Ikeuchi, who will retain his University of Tokyo position, will return to Cambodia this December to add finer detail to his Bayon temple model. And earlier this year, the salt-and-pepper-haired scientist took a different tack on preserving the past–by building a robot that employed visual sensors and object- and task-recognition algorithms to study a human performer and learn a traditional Japanese festival dance called Aizu bandaisan odori. In contrast to his Buddha studies, which capture what Ikeuchi likes to call “tangible heritage,” this is an effort to preserve “intangible heritage,” he says.

But it’s transforming the future, not reconstructing the past, that Ikeuchi hopes will be his greatest legacy. His intelligent-highway work is linked to a Japanese government effort to develop a transportation system that will route cars more efficiently to minimize congestion and reduce pollution. It’s also intended to make time spent on Japan’s crowded highways more productive, partly by giving commuters in-car Internet access. Human-computer interaction and computer vision systems will be essential to this infrastructure, which will recognize driving behaviors and warn of impending collisions, he says.

But all this is just an appetizer for Ikeuchi’s ultimate goal: combining legions of service robots with an intelligent infrastructure that will free an aging population in Japan and elsewhere from mundane tasks like driving, cleaning, and cooking, helping people preserve their independence. As the population grows older, says Ikeuchi, “we will definitely need some intelligent environment or service environment to support elderly people.”
By Robert Buderi

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