Keitai Eye Candy
By Niall McKay in Tokyo, Wed Mar 13 00:00:00 GMT 2002

"Japanese people have a tendency to build an emotional connection with an animated figure."


Every morning thousands of Japanese women take their temperature and punch the results into their cell-phones. Later, if they have that ‘lov’in’ feeling, they can whip’em out, push a button and a little animated Kuala Bear will appear. If the Kuala moves up the pole then their temperature has risen and they are ovulating. Therefore if they have sex they may become pregnant.

The application is just one of a number of animated utilities offered by 104.COM’s Keep it Simple Stupid Personal Information Management Software, which the company provides for Japan’s multi-billion dollar cell-phone or Keitai industry. The company has a similar animation to help customers track their weight gain or loss - only in that case it’s a pig that moves up or down the pole. Go figure.

“Originally, we offered a text version of the service but we found that many people didn’t understand how to use it,” says Arjen van Blokland, vice president of 104.com. “Since we introduced the animated application it has become extremely popular.”

Indeed, since the introduction of cell-phones in Japan consumers have become terribly fond of their Keitai animations. Not least because they are extremely fond of animation in general, for example over 60 percent of books and magazines sold here are in cartoon format.

Keitai animations first took the shape of tiny gray scale characters. Later, bigger screens, better networks and more powerful cell-phones brought all sorts of animations for entertainment purposes. Currently, many people use animation as a way to personalize their devices.

Switch on many Japanese cell-phones and Hello Kitty, Springman or Super Mario will probably greet you. There are thousands of such animations from cartoon porn stars to super heroes. Even Disney Interactive is getting in on the action and has opened offices in Tokyo.

Made for each other


And why not? In many ways animation and cell-phones are made for each other not only because cartoons are easy to download, run on low-powered cell-phone chips but also because they are the ideal size to be displayed the small screen. Furthermore, content providers here have been a great deal more successful then their Web forefathers at deriving revenue from such services because NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, and J-Phone, collect the fees from their customers. And there are a lot of customers - over 46 million - not bad considering that Japan’s population is 126 million people.

The next career move for these little animated creatures is to earn their keep. They will be employed to give advice, guide customers around the phone, and provide services. That way they can collect information, find new friends, and of course buy new products or services on behalf of their masters.

In short, they will find gainful employment, and if they are cute, entertaining, or show a little bit of leg while they do their job – then so much the better.What remains constant is that the Japanese public seems eager to interact with animated characters.

“We have found that that people are more willing to trust character based animations than the more traditional text or graphics,” says Juergen Specht, co-founder and CTO of Nooper.com, which runs a usability testing consultancy for the Keitai environment. “In fact, people have a tendency to build an emotional connection with the animated figure.”

According to Specht, Keitai consumers project personalities into the animations. “It’s not just about having something cute on your phone but also about knowing the animations history, its family, and its interests.”

So much so, in fact, that their creators provide biographies, histories, likes, dislikes and even the birthdays of their characters on special web sites.

Entertainment and much more


Sanrio the company that created Hello Kitty, for example, describes itself as being in the ‘social communication’ business and has an extensive website telling users that Hello Kitty was born in suburban London on November 1, 1974, is a cheerful warm hearted little girl (still) and baking cookies is her forte. Obviously Hello Kitty has been an enormous success and has made it into virtually every mass market sector from bags to pajamas, from movies and cartoons. And of course, to cell-phone animations.

So, in many ways, the Japanese public is primed and ready to pay for animation services because they have been already shelling out wads of cash to be entertained by these creatures. Take for example, Samurai Romanesque, a multiplayer Fight’em game based in ancient Japan. It’s producers have annual revenues in excess of half a billion Yen. Not bad considering that the game, for all its complexity (over 1600 situations to choose from) is little more than a throw back to some of the first video games. Another offering called ImaHima (meaning; free time-here) uses location-based technology to help people get together in the real world. So while US cell-phone operators such as Verizon still spend millions on advertising campaigns boasting that you can sometimes hear the other party clearly, Japanese operators such as KDDI are already rolling out location-based services and wireless videophones.

With ImaHima, for example, you can type in your preferences and it will use the phone’s location based services (GPS with KDDI and cell-triangulation with NTT DoCoMo) to find somebody in you locality that is willing to meet in person.

Put theses two services together and you get a third type of offering, which not only provides entertainment but can also be useful. And of course, there is a company ready to launch such a service. It is called I-Chara and it has build an intelligent agent application that displays a cute little animation on your cell-phone screen which acts as your avatar.

When you are offline, your I-Chara-(cter) goes out onto the network and finds friends, information, and of course goods and services that you may want to purchase.

Sound familiar? That’s because it is.

Such ideas were bandied around freely during the early days of the Web. Many ideas had their roots in science fiction books such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or William Gipson’s descriptions of cyberspace. There were dozens of commercial services ranging from Apple’s eWorld to Virtual Worlds technology. Critics will say that such services were a dismal failure. And they would be right. But lets face it, around that time Apple also brought out the Newton, one of the first implementations of the Personal Digital Assistant and it failed too but today the sector is seen as a dazzling success. Besides most of these early offering looked terrible.

But that is not necessarily the major difference between the Japanese Keitai market and the Web according to Daniel Scuka, editor of Wireless Watch a Tokyo based Video Newsletter.

“The Internet has never been mentioned in Japan in connection with the Keitai here,” he says. “People don’t care what technology they are using. They are just using their cell-phone.”

Indeed, such Keitai services here are driven by their applications such as cell-phone train time schedules, movie listings or indeed ovulation schedules, rather than the technology as with the web. Furthermore, the applications are aimed at the mass-market consumer rather than the corporate IT manager so they have to be compelling enough for people to pay for them – nothing is free on the Keitai.

Nooper.com's Specht believes that the success of the Keitai is also due to the fact that Japanese companies mostly use women to conduct their focus groups and usability testing. “Men become involved in the technology and on how it works,” he says. “Women, on the other hand don’t care how it works. It just does or it doesn’t.”

It was a woman, Mari Matsunaga, who pioneer the usability testing for NTT’s i-mode service, it is the young girls in the Shibuya district of Tokyo that pioneered the use of many of the cell-phone data services and were the early adopters of the cute Hello Kitty-type cell phone animations.

So what will the future bring?


Certainly, the cross fertilization of Artificial Intelligence, animation and 3G could offer some interesting applications. Mitsubishi Labs in Cambridge, England, for example, is developing software that maps human voices to animations. Such software would, enable the user to tie their boss’s number in their directory to an animation of Homer Simpson on the toilet. Mickey Mouse animation could, for example, represent the voice of a customer sales representative at Disney World. Cute eh?

Naturally, one could envisage these creatures becoming quite smart or at least appearing to become quite smart. Take, for example, something like Kizmit, robotic software developed by Dr. Rodney Brooks and his team at MIT that enables robots to mimics human emotions and fuse it with the 3G video camera cell-phone offerings and the animation on the cell phone could take it’s cues from the users facial expression or tone of voice.

However, for the moment, at least, the Japanese operators are endeavoring to find new ways to encourage their customers to pay for services. That means, offering services that are easier to use and that means getting rid of the need to read text on tiny screens and write text with a tiny keyboard. Animation, voice recognition and AI are three very good ways of achieving this.

Still, all this may seem a little too cute for the Europeans and a little too unnecessary for the Americans, however, in the past Japan has had a curious knack for taking a product such as the car or the computer which was invented in Europe, and mass produced in the United States and turning it into a commodity.

While the American’s are still trying to get their cell-phones to work and the Europeans are busy coming out with the most sleekest, smallest and most stylish cell-phone possible the Japanese have moved to the next base by putting the truly personal in to the personal device in the same way as they put the personal to the personal stereo or walkman.

Niall McKay is a freelance Journalist based in Tokyo, Japan. He can be reached at www.niall.org .