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Saturday, 24 December 2011

Get your fax on: dated device boasts second wind

A software developer at Kei Katsu America
 demonstrates a prototype 'Polly'
shoulder-mounted fax machine.
Thought the fax was dead? Think again. A new type of fax machine which is miniaturised, portable and contains cutting-edge patented voice recognition technology is under development by a leading Japanese electronics manufacturer. Two squads of developers – one in Japan looking after the hardware side and the other in California working on the software – have invented the groundbreaking ‘Polly Phonic Fax’ and it is set to be released within a year.

“We were a bit sceptical at first, when we heard about it,” said analyst Brendan Verhooj of Auckland technology watcher GD Ventures. “But their marketing plan is interesting because it taps into a real need, especially in Japan where the population is ageing rapidly.

“’Who cares about a new type of fax?’ we said. But they are very cleverly targeting people who cannot use such devices as smart phones but want a way to communicate with their children, for example, who do.”

The standard ‘Polly’ (for short) will be shoulder-mounted, which leaves the wearer’s hands free to do other things. It contains a powerful microphone that rests close to the wearer’s chin and, developers say, can pick up speech easily.

“The person wearing the Polly talks normally,” said Chandra Biswas, development manager at Kei Katsu America, the Japanese company’s US outfit. “That feed is digitised and converted into characters by the voice recognition software we have been making. It’s trained to understand the wearer’s speech patterns, so there are few errors.

“The message can then be sent via Wi-Fi or other medium to any other device, say an iPhone. Similarly, a text message from an iPhone can be directed to the wearer’s device, the Polly, which prints out the message there and then.”

“The basic technology appears to be sound,” said Verhooj. “We do not see any competitors here or anywhere else. It’s credible.”

The person wearing the Polly can also dictate a message and print it out for immediate personal use.

“In Japan we have traditions,” said Masa Ban, a technology writer based in Nagoya. “You are familiar with the temples and shrines in this country, I think. Many people pray. Some people leave onikuji tied to a tree or bamboo for wishes. It’s very popular, especially with traditional Japanese. Polly is good for those consumers.”

Onikuji are pieces of white paper that have a wish or a fortune printed or written on them. Use of onikuji is widespread and of long standing even among tech-savvy consumers in Japan.

“They can print out a message and tie it to a tree. It's a good feature,” said Ban.

Sales of the Polly are expected to ramp up from a low base but profits would also derive from service provision. Older Japanese can have difficulty getting used to such technologies as the internet and mobile phones, said Ban. Kei Katsu plans to offer a range of service types to their Japanese customers.

“This is a really exciting thing,” said Verhooj. “You can get the paper blessed at different temples around the country. For different people at different times of the year, different temples might be more auspicious. We would not attempt to replicate this marketing strategy in the West, but focus groups that have been run in Japan tell us it is a popular idea.”

“You cannot bless electrons,” said Ban. “Or liquid crystals.”

Different colours of paper are also planned. 

“Kei Katsu KK has many successes in electronic devices,” said Kei Katsu corporate secretary Amawasu Sitegawa. “Our goal always is to give good products and services to our customers. If you want paper blessed by the priest at Yasukuni Shrine or by monks living in Kiyo-Mizudera Temple, it’s no problem. We can handle that requirement.”

“Do I think it will be successful? I think so,” said Ban. “The problem with many manufacturers of communication devices is profitability. Manufacturing costs in Japan are not cheap and many companies have moved their factories to China and Thailand. But services will not be moved overseas.”

“We think Polly is a cracker,” said Verhooj.

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