For melding the digital and physical worlds with futuristic impact and artistry
Scientist. Artist. Technologist. Yoichi Ochiai operates on the uncertain boundary where bleeding-edge tech and the natural world intersect. At the University of Tsukuba, near Tokyo, Ochiai leads a 50-person laboratory dedicated to an interdisciplinary blend of “computer science, physics, biology, wave engineering, material science, interaction, usability, art expression and design.” He’s also the CEO of startup Pixie Dust Technologies, which last year developed a platform called magickiri that helps businesses analyze the risk of COVID-19 infection spread in their interior spaces. As an artist, Ochiai has created mesmerizing tech-enhanced work, including as executive director of The New Japan Islands exhibit.
Ochiai emerged as a tech wunderkind a decade ago, giving a TED Talk in Tokyo in 2011 and earning global attention the following year for leading a team that created a projection display screen made from soap bubbles. His first breakthrough work, as a University of Tokyo graduate student, was inspired by the echolocation of dolphins: He used the power of ultrasonic waves to suspend small objects in midair, and then varied the acoustic properties of those waves to move the objects through the space.
His work and research often are so future-focused that it can sometimes be difficult to grasp the tangible benefits. But the positive social impact—from health and safety to accessibility—has deep potential. As part of the xDiversity research project for the Japan Science and Technology Agency, Ochiai examines how AI and digital fabricating applications can serve as the backbone of a new sort of bespoke manufacturing, enabling tailor-made products for those who had previously been left on the margins.
How Yoichi Ochiai is Changing Worlds with Futuristic Impact
Yoichi Ochiai is melding the digital and physical worlds with futuristic impact. He operates on the uncertain boundary where tech and the natural world intersect. At the University of Tsukuba, near Tokyo, Ochiai leads a 50-person laboratory dedicated to an interdisciplinary blend of “computer science, physics, biology, wave engineering, material science, interaction, usability, art expression and design.”
“Universal design is a very strange term to me,” Ochiai says. “Universal means that something gets manufactured for the majority, not the minority.”
Specifically targeting the hearing-impaired, he collaborated with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra to use dynamic digital art generation and cues from haptic speakers to extend the aural experience of concertgoers through the senses of sight and touch. His goal: allow hearing-impaired people to sense the emotion and dynamic movement of a symphony.
Another project aims to facilitate conversations between people with hearing impairments and those without. The team is using voice-recognition and real-time transcription software to project the conversation’s text onto a two-way glass panel. Such tech advances are filling gaps so that “disability should not matter,” Ochiai says.
“Deafness or blindness or problems like a lack of the legs or lack of arms—that will be solved in this century,” he says. “That is a new nature—we call it digital nature—because the human can change the environment or infrastructure itself.”