Confronted with the oldest population in the world, Japan applies its technological know-how to face the problems posed by this social phenomenon, especially in the field of health. Technology helps make life as long as possible, but the value of life is not just a matter of how long people can live. Equally important is the quality of life and Japanese technology is making great strides in this area as well. The award-winning Syrinx is a portable electrolarynx that gives voice to people who have lost theirs to illness, while the imo optical examination device opens up new possibilities in the diagnosis of glaucoma and other eye diseases.
Give people a voice
As a scientist specializing in electrical engineering, University of Tokyo graduate student Takeuchi Masaki is well aware of how technology can contribute to the modern world. But with a deep interest in social well-being, he also recognizes the importance of applying his knowledge to improve people’s lives. “In order to really meet people who have lost their voice, in the summer of 2019, I visited an organization called Ginreikai in Tokyo, ”says Takeuchi of the group that helps people who have lost their voice.
Many people who have lost their voice use an electrolarynx to communicate. It is a stick-shaped vibrating device that users should hold close to their throat. In combination with the movements of the tongue and mouth, the electrolarynx resonates in the mouth to produce real words. This way these people can communicate, but the downside is that they have to hold the “stick” to their throats and the voice that is emitted is very robotic.
“I have met a lot of people who have lost their voice,” says Takeuchi. “And I learned about the problem of people who stopped communicating because they were bothered by the robotic voice of the electrolarynx, so I decided to solve this problem.” Takeuchi assembled a team of graduate students from the University of Tokyo to develop Syrinx.
The beauty of Syrinx is that it is portable and produces a voice based on recordings of the user’s own voice. When the user manipulates the tongue and mouth to ‘speak’, Syrinx uses AI to reprocess the words using the stored version of the user’s own voice. Syrinx’s innovation was recognized at the Japan Healthcare Business Contest 2021 where it won the Grand Prix, and it also won several prestigious international awards. Unfortunately for the 1.4 million potential customers worldwide, only prototypes exist at the moment.
“Now we are focused on technological development, because we work closely with the people who need our devices, taking into account their feedback in the development,” says Takeuchi, who stresses that his main concern is what users need rather than think about. Syrinx as a commercial project. Further development will be needed to perfect Syrinx – the vocal pitch issue is one that Takeuchi wants to overcome – and members of Takeuchi’s team regularly return to Ginreikai for feedback. “I really want to make this device widely available for people who have no voice and who may be hesitant to get involved in society,” Takeuchi said. “Syrinx will help them gain a certain sense of freedom and they will become more active, which would be a positive factor not only for individual patients, but for society as a whole. ”
A new vision of eye testing
Being unable to express yourself is difficult, but sensory deprivation means you can’t even acquire information. “Eighty or ninety percent of the information you get comes from your eyes,” says Eguchi Tetsuya, CEO of CREWT Medical Systems, Inc., which produces imo, a portable visual field testing device (perimetry ) for glaucoma and other eye problems. “Maintaining good eyesight is essential to quality of life. The key to living with glaucoma, he adds, is detection. While many people go to the dentist every year to have their teeth checked, few do the same for their eyes. “Early detection of symptoms is important, so we want to provide an opportunity for early detection,” Eguchi said. The problem with glaucoma, he points out, is that it doesn’t show any obvious symptoms until it’s too late. Eguchi says imo, the world’s first head-mounted visual field (perimetry) testing device, is to detect such symptoms.
Typically, diagnosing glaucoma requires a tedious visit to an ophthalmologist and a delicate test where you have to put your head in a device and keep one eye open while a light is on in a dark room in a clinic. imo, on the other hand, is designed to be worn on the head while both eyes remain open and does not need to be led into a dark room. As such, it is both easier and less time consuming than conventional tests. Eguchi’s vision is to see imos available in other places such as pharmacies. Currently, imo is in use in nearly 200 locations across Japan.
It is estimated that around 80 million people worldwide suffer from glaucoma and many live in countries where it is not so easy to get medical checks. The portability of the imo provides a solution to the problems of conventional eye testing. “Due to the aging of the Japanese population, I think we have become more aware here of the importance of testing,” Eguchi said. “In addition, Japan has great expertise in optical engineering and it is also easy for us to consult medical experts. Eguchi formed CREWT as a subsidiary of optical equipment manufacturer Hoya; his three colleagues are all optical engineers. The company also has a close working relationship with the University of Tokyo and Kindai University, while the production of imo is outsourced.
Sales to date have been limited in Japan, but Eguchi is now looking for distributors to take imo overseas, targeting the US first, then Europe and the rest of the world. His motivation is to improve the quality of people’s lives. “Before, the retirement age was 60,” he says. “But now that has changed and people may have to work until they are 75 in some cases. This means that you really need good eyesight – what we call “quality of sight” – in order to maintain quality of life, both personal and professional.
Technological innovation often begins with small beginnings before developing into fruitful collaborations. Syrinx and imo were developed from personalized visions of the future and a desire to improve the quality of people’s lives. Both have enormous potential to improve the lives of people, not only in Japan, but around the world. As Takeuchi says: “I want to work to revive people’s lost abilities and identity in order to achieve a world where their individuality and personality is respected and where people’s quality of life improves.
Note: All Japanese names in this infomercial are given in the traditional format, with the last name preceding the first name.
To learn more about CREWT Medical Systems, Inc., please click here.
To learn more about Syrinx, please click here.