Below is a list of our current technology development initiatives:
DIY urban gardening is a popular subcategory of citizen-led urban design. As part of our efforts to explore the use of digital fabrication to further facilitate such activities, we are developing a novel 3D printing technique that enables automatic creation of freeform hydroponic "gardens". Through our experiments, we have found that by printing fine 3D mesh structures out of specialized polymer material, we can fabricate volumes that effectively act as soil substitutes; plant seeds can be attached to the volumes' surfaces, and given enough light, water, and nutrients, they will eventually germinate and show sustained, healthy growth. Our custom software allows users to design "gardens" with various 3D forms and plant layouts, whose outputs can be read and run by 3D printers.
A wide range of plants can be grown on the 3D printed volumes, including herbs, flowers, fruits, and vegetables. The material is non-toxic, and thus the technique has potential uses in food production (e.g., printed farms). In the future, we believe that the technique can be extended to 3D print complex, semi-natural environments that serve as habitats for various animals, birds, insects, etc. Although our experiments so far have been limited to small-scale "gardens", the technology is theoretically scalable.
By enabling automatic fabrication of easily manageable "gardens", we expect the technology to make urban gardening more accessible, even for people without prior DIY or horticultural experience. We also expect the technology to lead to new ideas for introducing greenery and nature into cities, contributing to healthier urban ecosystems and increased biodiversity.
We are developing dédédé, an online platform that invites users to casually share opinions about their neighborhoods. The name "dédédé" derives from eedé, akandé, and nandé (good, bad, and why in Kansai dialect) — by encouraging users to upload and debate the positive, negative, and puzzling aspects of their cities, the platform acts as a virtual town hall where constant dialogue takes place around urban issues. The platform is currently in trial phase, open to select residents in the Nishijin district of Kyoto. We plan to make the platform public in the near future, initially in Japan and later worldwide.
Participation in neighborhood activities can involve some phychological barriers, especially for newcomers to cities who lack robust connections to the local community. Our primary goal with dédédé is to impart the approachability of social media to participatory urbanism. While dédédé itself is a simple platform whose sole function is allowing users to exchange opinions about their neighborhoods, by exposing users to diverse ideas and perspectives on cities, we believe it can serve as a gateway that gently steers users into more active forms of citizen-led urbanism, such as community gardening.
* We are currently soliciting names for our official mascot character (rightmost figure in the above image). If you have any good ideas, please let us know!
Augmented reality (AR) can potentially assist urban decision-making by visualizing the results of various policy and interventions. Conventional AR applications, especially those targeting outdoor use, are largely confined to overlaying additional layers of virtual data (e.g., navigation arrows, cartoon characters) on top of the real-world scenery. We are working toward developing a more expressive form of AR, that goes beyond such simple visual effects and performs dynamic 3D transformations of the built environment. Our goal is to create a versatile urban AR platform, capable of rendering both limited-scale interventions (e.g., installing benches) and city-wide policy changes (e.g., introducing height restrictions).
Our development efforts can be categorized as follows:
First, as such advanced AR requires precise knowledge of the device's pose and position, we are designing new visual markers that enable fine-grained location tracking in urban environments. Visual markers for location tracking typically have conspicuous (and, to some, aesthetically unpleasing) appearances; in contrast, our markers are "invisible", i.e., they can only be detected via machine vision. The markers — which can be printed using standard color printers — can be made to look like arbitrary images to human eyes, allowing a large number of them to be installed in any environment, in a discreet manner.
Second, relying on the precise location tracking achieved using the aforementioned markers, we are developing a collection of image processing techniques that implement the expressive visual effects, e.g., 3D transformations of buildings.
Recently, an increasing number of cities around the world are introducing programs that legalize citizen-led urban design. Typically, such initiatives are accompanied by labor-intensive (and hence unscalable) review processes that ensure the legality and soundness of citizens' proposals. If we were to radically accelerate citizen-led urbanism (as is the goal of the Wikitopia Project), mechanisms will need to be introduced that can perform such reviews at scale.
To this end, we are building a custom "Rules as Code (RaC)" environment. RaC refers to the notion of writing rules (e.g., legislation) using both natural and computer-readable, artificial languages; its benefits include the potential to construct more transparent and consistent sets of rules, and the possibility of applying logical inference to automate some legal decision-making. Currently, artificial languages used in RaC environments are difficult to comprehend for untrained citizens. At the core of our RaC environment is a new, easily-learnable language ("CyLanguage") which diminishes this barrier to entry.
If official rules regarding citizen-led urbanism are written in CyLanguage, citizens' proposals also written in CyLanguage can be automatically reviewed for their lawfulness. Although complete elimination of human involvement is neither realistic nor desirable, the use of RaC should significantly streamline the approval process, allowing rapid but also orderly expansion of citizen-led urbanism.
Sensors, displays, and other digital devices are already deeply embedded within the urban infrastructure. In the future, we can expect a wider range of technologies to be integrated into the built environment (including self-driving mechanisms, programmable materials, etc.), giving cities increased ability to respond to citizens' needs. While such developments may still seem far off, we are investigating how intelligent urban infrastructure can affect citizen-led urbanism, and as part of such efforts, creating a next-generation lighting device called AnyLight.
AnyLight is a panel-shaped, programmable lighting device that can mimic the illumination effects of a wide array of light sources, such as spotlight, chandelier, sunlight, etc. The device makes use of an optical principle ("integral illumination") similar to that used in building glasses-free 3D displays. Through fine control of the outgoing light field, the device can simulate the presence of arbitrary light sources positioned behind the panel. In a room fully furnished with AnyLight, light sources of various forms can be made to appear at any location, at any time. We expect the device to initially find use in specialized settings (e.g., film studios), and eventually become one of the most common forms of everyday lighting.
In future cities where AnyLight has become the norm, lighting may be programmed at the regional scale, responding to the collective needs of the community — colorful lights may adorn the streets during festivals, and nighttime illumination may be minimized to prevent disruptions to wildlife.