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Communicating on a Cloud Takahiro Asai
Bringing people together anytime, anywhere

The new Cloud based system we developed was launched globally in April, 2012. It’s called the Unified Communication System (UCS). Small, lightweight, and portable like a netbook, it can be used anywhere that Internet access is available, which differentiates it from a conventional video conferencing system. As if several persons were “huddling” in the one office, people in multiple remote locations can discuss anytime whenever they want.

Beyond that, work styles not bound by place or time have multiplied recently; a big subject now is how to promote communication. On a mobile terminal, although one-on-one talk is possible, to talk with two or more people, we have to gather somewhere. UCS solves this kind of problem. Conventional video conferencing systems have always required leased lines and have generally been restricted to special rooms.

When the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred, while the telephone lines were still unstable, we delivered UCS prototypes for in-house demonstration to production bases in afflicted areas and multiple footholds in Kanto. We did it hastily, but results were outstanding. We made it possible to discuss restoration measures confirming the damage situation onsite, which contributed to early recovery.

Among the first to dive into Internet technology

I majored in combustion engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at university. I was creating an analysis algorithm of CAD for automobile engines. While many of my friends chose automakers while job-hunting, I decided "I'd rather reserve automobiles for my hobby," and chose Ricoh, where I saw the chance for inter-industrial development. I first worked in developing outline fonts for PCs. Although I was assigned to develop a compiler for image processing, since I had no experience in programming, I had to spend every day studying for the first year. The fonts I developed were adopted by Windows and are still in use.

Photo:Takahiro AsaiThen, while researching image processing using fractals and wavelets (*), I was assigned extra work in networking, which was introduced in the R&D division. Since I didn't know anything about networks, I jumped right in not knowing what I was getting into <grin>. I had a very hard time, but that was the middle of the 1990s, when the network environment was migrating from digital leased lines to the Internet. I was able to immerse myself in the middle of new technologies, one born after another. We have many opportunities in this company to quickly access such new technologies. And those opportunities continue today. Further, I was transferred to the Software Research Center (of that time) in 1998, and was assigned to developing a printer amenable to wireless LAN. I developed it almost all by myself. The system is now on digital multifunction printers (MFP) that equipped a wireless-LAN card.

* Fractal, wavelet, etc.: A fractal is in a geometrical structure having self-similarity; a wavelet is a limited long-wave type signal—both apply to image analysis.

The freedom to output all kinds of information

When development of the printer for wireless LAN had reached an advanced stage, we received an inquiry from a music ringtone delivery company for portable cell phones to build a network system that would allow cell phone users to print musical scores or lyric sheets at convenience stores. That would be a first in the industry. It matched the time when the contents market of the portable cell phone had begun to expand rapidly; I found it interesting and got involved. Well, okay they may have twisted my arm a bit with the loan of the newest portable cell phone for development <grin>. I completed the projects in about seven to eight months. Because I did most of it on my own, I also took over after sales support. That experience greatly inspired my subsequent career path.

Through development of the printing system for portable cell phones, I came to realize that I could create a network system to allow free choice of terminals and output equipment. People would soon walk around carrying various kinds of information terminals. When that happens, they would be able to conveniently use printer or MFP outputs anywhere, not limited to certain offices or convenience stores. Since the fax line can specify the device with its telephone number, it is super reliable. Cost, however, increases significantly because the number must be assigned to all devices. On the other hand, although IP use on the Internet is inexpensive, it is difficult to specify the device. Since addresses can be freely assigned, the environment changes easily. It can happen that the information you want to print from the printer in front of you may be sent to a stranger's home.

I wanted to provide a simple, low cost and open output environment that everyone could use. That thought led me to invent a new printing solution platform. The idea is to assign numbers to all output equipment in the world, using a protocol (SIP: Session Initiation Protocol) for call control of IP phones (VoIP). It is much as if we created a telephone exchange station. Output here doesn’t refer only to paper, but includes images, video, sound, etc. Therefore, projectors, display units and the like as well as printers or MFPs are also our targets. Isn't that wonderful? <Grin> When I disclosed this idea in the company, people around me were skeptical. I could imagine them saying "Keep it in your dreams!" Naturally, I couldn't find anyone to listen to me at first. Nevertheless, I looked for supporters and began by numbering nearby MFPs first. I also announced the idea in an in-house technical open house exhibition and external solution fairs. I also made joint research with a university and held a review meeting in collaboration with a communication career. That was around 2005.

Connecting people - Not devices

After that, the concept to freely output and display information through varied output equipment available in the world took shape a little at a time. The protocol was also changed from SIP to a unique protocol having higher flexibility. Although on a small scale, the test environment also began to move within the company. Although there were, of course, twists and turns that included setbacks and stagnations, we persevered as patient corporate citizens <grin>. What I can say for sure is that if you keep looking for sympathizers and supporters who really believe, a path to success always opens up. Those who say "Quite interesting, let's try it." will certainly appear. And that’s where I find the Ricoh charm, a multi-culture company among many mono-cultural companies. I should also mention that Ricoh is generous.

The new age has taken our side. Cloud computing, which delivers services "on that side” of the Internet freely, is spreading quickly. Beyond that, the smartphone market is expanding. The needs to output without restrictions of place have been increasing apace. I'm confident that we are well positioned to provide the most suitable output environment in the Cloud era.

Photo:BooksI was transferred to my present post in April 2008, and was directed to develop new communication equipment in parallel with the concepts above. The full-scale development project started after about a year and a half of planning and technical study. I was assigned to manage a 20+ person project team. At the same time, when the project started to move, I became aware of how important the manager's role is. Basically, a software engineer likes to work alone, rather than with a team; I understand that because I was the same. I looked around and saw that they were all working from their individual viewpoints. I hastily purchased books on project management and read them day after day. And the more I read, the more important I considered their content, and the more pressure I felt <grin>.

I came to believe firmly in repeated trial and error that it was the most important to share my vision with the members; I talked with each person one-on-one. As a result, I was able to confirm the direction mutually with all members. I believe that if the target is the same, it doesn't matter how each individual member progresses. It took about half a year before the project began to function properly. Although I may have caused some problems for my team, I think we achieved a tightly knit organization. Its first success was the UCS, introduced early in this article.

UCS can increase its value even more by coordinating with other devices and systems. Ricoh continues to provide systems for the Cloud computing age, including a small projection system "IPSiO PJ Series" and conferencing system "TAMAGO Presenter" using tablet terminals. Further on, we will develop new world-leading products that handled various kinds of information freely—anywhere at any time. Our colleagues are now brainstorming on what kind of devices will prevail. It is more important that we consider what kind of communication we will provide our customers, than what kind of devices or systems we will make. I would like to help our customers extend person-to-person communication and to spawn new values so that customers will say "this is what we expect from Ricoh." That's my top concern and it is Ricoh that gives me the chance to make it happen.

Photo:Takahiro Asai Takahiro Asai
A graduate in Mechanical Engineering, he joined Ricoh in 1991. After developing outline fonts for PCs, wireless-LAN printers, printing system for portable cell phones etc., Asai drafted the concept of a printing solution platform for Cloud computing. He is now promoting a new communication system as chief architect. Weekends and holidays, he tools around in and works on his Lotus ELAN 1600 (Manufactured in 1964); also doing a little "Sunday programming." Currently, he is Executive Specialist of New Business Development Center, Corporate Planning Division.
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