Japan report: inside the mobile phone dream factory

Cutting-edge research institute puts people before gadgets

Japan's legions of small northwest coastal towns are famed for their patchworks of rice paddies and garlands of snow-capped mountains that offer some of the region’s best skiing.

But only one town is home to a cutting-edge research lab that's devoted to understanding how we interact with our mobile phones.

The Mobile Consumer Lab at the International University of Japan (IUJ) in Uonuma, Niigata, was created by director Dr Philip Sugai in 2007.

It has a very clear purpose: don't worry about the actual technology in modern mobile phones, but be more concerned with how people use them. Such research should lead to the creation of better, more useful services in the future.

Diversity is the key

The 30 graduate students research usable mobile browsers; providing real-time travel information to mobile phones, understanding the insidious nature of marketing the mobile lifestyle to children and even ways to protect sometimes-vulnerable female tourists through phone handsets..

Looking ahead

Mongolian student Mendbayar Ichinkhorloo explains his research on mobile financial services: “With the improvements in mobile technology," he suggests, "mobile stock trading and real-time portfolio-checking will be the next killer application by 2010."

As if to underline the practical nature of the Lab, Ichinkhorloo goes on to reveal his plans to implement just such a financial service in Mongolia after graduating from IUJ.

Beside Ichinkhorloo, fellow student Daniel Bukenya from Uganda specialises in the use of phones as electronic cash. While this technology is widely established in Japan, he knows that there’s still a long way to go as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

"The biggest challenge [for providers of mobile micropayments, as they’re known]," Bukenya says, "is providing the conditions needed for the service to thrive. These include legal requirements, infrastructure and technology and ease of use for the customer."

Putting his finger on a point many technology providers would do well to remember, Bukenya adds, “They really need to look beyond the hype and look at the value proposition for the customers too.”

Colleague Atri Singgih, who hails from Indonesia, cautions that the nature of the institution offering mobile e-cash is critical.

Focusing on the all-important issue of consumer trust, he says: “any company that introduces or pushes mobile payment technology to customers should be a large-base customer institution working together with the mobile operator and a financial institution. That will help merchants accept it and, thus, customers to see the clear value of the new technology.”

Head for business

It’s all undoubtedly fascinating work and more interesting than the numbers-based boasts we get from the mobile phone companies and networks.

But the Lab isn’t just about the warm and fuzzy stuff – there’s a hard core of business driving Dr Philip Sugai's vision.

A substantial part of his work involves finding commercial sponsors to fund students towards their MBA degrees and to develop concrete business plans.

Towards the time of graduation, Sugai plans to introduce the incubated ideas to so-called angel investors with a view to making their research into reality. Best of all, everyone involved gets a stake in any resulting enterprise.

Aside from sharing their experience, that’s one reason why heavy hitters like Motorola, Sony, DoCoMo, KDDI, Qualcomm, Opera and Google have been beating a path to The Mobile Consumer Lab in recent months.

Sugai explains: "Having corporate sponsors makes things real for Lab students - one of the problems with business education is that it can be too classroom-based. Training students to actually deliver strategic solutions and not just half-baked ideas is important.

"Our mission is to create new ideas, businesses and opportunities by focusing not on technology but on consumer interaction with their devices. There are many universities in Japan and around the world that are looking at mobile technology... but we’re a business school.”

Hype filter

Clearly, 'keeping it real' is important to Sugai and his students. Turning to a subject we’ve looked at before – fancy phone gadgets going unused – he cites the example of mobile TV.

"You read the hype about this many mobile television phones being shipped... but the reality is 50 per cent of people who try [mobile TV] never use it again. Technology is a tool, but it’s the interaction of that technology with people where the fun really is."

Returning to the theme of spawning hard-headed businesspeople who understand what consumers want, Sugai points out the quality of the speakers he has attracted to the Lab.

"Putting people like Sachio Semmoto [the founder of wireless broadband provider Emobile], who just raised three billion US dollars for a new mobile network or Takeshi Natsuno, one of the founders of i-mode, right in front of these guys to learn from is very exciting."

Exciting’s one word for it – smart and extremely pragmatic are a few more to add to it for sure.

Although it’s still early days for the project, the quality of the students and resources already at the Mobile Consumer Lab make it clear that any business with an interest in mobile phones and what we do with them should make a ticket to northwest Japan a priority – if they haven’t already done so, that is.

Need to know more? Follow the Mobile Consumer Lab blog