Take the example of a guideboard sign. Adopting Omron’s aerial imaging technology for this sign will enable an arrow, which previously was just presented on a plane, to be displayed three-dimensionally in an open space. This means that hard-to-understand instructions like “Walk up the stairs in the back” can be understood by anyone at a glance. Also, a display (image) created by light is safe and unobtrusive even though it appears to be floating in air.
Here’s how the technology works. Light from a light-emitting diode (LED) passes through a transparent plate embedded with tens of thousands of Fresnel lenses, which are special lenses that can alter the light beam angle. In this way, light is refracted to produce an image in the upper air above the plate. This results in the projection of 3D images. Using this technology can add extra information (benefits and convenience) to a variety of objects in the real world. Moreover, all you need for aerial imaging is one LED and one transparent plate. With these components, 3D images can be easily projected virtually anywhere. In fact, the possible applications of aerial imaging expand almost limitlessly.
Aerial imaging has finally become a reality today. But the seeds of the technology were already planted some 20 years ago. Masayuki Shinohara, an engineer who led the commercialization of aerial imaging, remembers, “Omron’s research of light control technology had already been launched before I joined the company.” His predecessors had accumulated light technologies one after another, in the same way that each stratum of earth stacks one layer atop the previous. The outcomes of their endeavor were passed on to Shinohara, and this eventually came to fruition in the form of aerial imaging.
As well as this accumulation of light control technologies, accurate foresight was a key to achieving this innovation, and Omron took advantage of foresight more than any of its competitors. When Omron started working on light directivity 20 years ago, Omron visionaries had already predicted that mobile phones would eventually serve as information devices, which would require large, thin displays. Based on this prediction, Omron devoted itself to the development of LED backlights, contributing to the higher picture quality and slimmer design of mobile phones. Thus, Omron’s focus is not only on the development of new technology but on predicting future trends in society. “Our approach is to predict the benefits that our technology will provide, and how this will change the market,” says Shinohara. In fact, the development of aerial imaging was only possible with Omron’s advanced capability of accurate foresight.
Three years ago, optical design technology for backlights had reached a fairly high level. So, “What will come next?” was a question that Shinohara and his team were asking themselves. “We thought we should now look to 3D rather than 2D,” he says. “In other words, we thought we should advance into spatial technology.” This idea triggered the launch of a full-scale endeavor to develop aerial imaging technology. One of the biggest challenges was to perfect light directivity design, that is, the ability to emit particles of light in any direction desired. Difficulty was also encountered in the development of micro-fabrication technology capable of controlling surface unevenness of the lens-embedded plate with micron-scale (1/1,000mm) precision. To realize these technologies, Omron engineers had to overcome many hurdles. But what they sought was to project more realistic images in real-world space by drawing on high-precision light control technology. These lofty ambitions and the enthusiasm of the Omron engineers motivated them to continuously accept new challenges.
Shinohara’s vision is ambitious: “By 2020, I want to fill the entire city of Tokyo with aerial images. Our goal is to make aerial imaging something that is commonly used and found everywhere in the city.” Imagine you are walking in a large transportation terminal with an intricate web of passageways. If there is an easy-to-understand 3D sign floating in the air by the exit or at each corner of the station, you will no longer need to worry about losing your way. Aerial imaging can also project a floating image of information in front of products on display in a showcase. The list of what this technology can offer goes on and on. Once Omron’s aerial imaging technology makes people’s daily lives more convenient, the technology will no longer be something special. By the time this happens, Omron will have already been moving ahead to realize the next technology advancement.