Thermo-Optical Camouflage

Bringing Ghost In The Shell’s Thermo-Optical Camouflage to Life: Interview With Japanese Engineering Doctorate, Professor Masahiko Inami

Ghost In The Shell is a series that stands out as a vision of the way technology can impact the world in a real way in a not too distant future. It’s because of this depiction of realistic sci-fi elements combined with the creative genius that Masamune Shirow put into his work that many people in the world of technology & research have been inspired by this particular story. One such researcher is Masahiko Inami, Ph.D, advisor to the president and a Professor in the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo. His experience with Masamune Shirow’s masterwork inspired him to research and develop an active camouflage system based on Ghost In The Shell’s Thermo-Optical Camouflage in the real world. We sat down with him to discuss not only this project and how Ghost In The Shell influenced his work, but also how science fiction inspires researchers and the symbiotic nature of the genre with the world of technology.

OTAQUEST: Can you explain how remarkable “Ghost in the Shell” is from the researcher’s perspective?

Masahiko Inami: The first time when I read “Ghost in the Shell” was in the laboratory during my doctorate studies. It was given to me as a must-read bible for doing my research. I remember well that the idea of “ghost” and “cyborg” left an impression on me. I also remember that the drawings of wearing a prosthetic body were realistic. This is because I had experienced the world’s first tele-existence system “TELESAR” during my master’s studies, and I had an idea that we can think about soul and body separately.

“TELESAR” is a system to remotely control a robot from a head-mounted display (HMD). You can see your (= robot’s) hands and it gives you a feeling as if you are in the robot. Time and existence have always been a philosophical question, but at least I thought that there was a possibility that we might be able to have an experimental approach towards existence. This is why the world of “Ghost in the Shell” was interesting to me, that the anime had the same idea, so I strongly thought that Mr. Masamune Shirow thoroughly understood this technology for creating his production. For example, luciferase, a luminescent enzyme, is used as a conversion element in micromachines that connect the sensor and the nerves of the epidermis. I, myself, have been interested in bioluminescence since junior high school, so much so that I extracted luciferin and luciferase with other students. Also, the substances had been used as a biosensor in the biotechnology laboratory where I belonged to until my master’s course, so I thought someone close to a laboratory was joining the production (of Ghost In The Shell) as the brains. Of course, no one did (laughs). I thought there is a future in the field of cybernetics, so “Ghost in the Shell” was the presence of a bright future. I still have some of Shirow-san’s manga in my laboratory.

OTAQUEST: Can you explain the reason why you picked the “Thermo-Optical Camouflage” technology from “Ghost in the Shell”?

Masahiko Inami: The president of Production I.G said “A good sci-fi concept consists of 95% reality and 5% fiction.”, and I think that our job as researchers is to bring fiction to the reality side when the percentage of fiction reaches 5% or less. For example, in regards to “Doraemon” gadgets, I don’t know about “Time Machine” but we might be able to make “Anywhere Door (Dokodemo Door)” if we think of it as an extension of tele-existence. Actually, when I read “Ghost in the Shell”, I didn’t think of making thermo-optical camouflage, but when I was researching stereoscopic images using a projector, I thought that something would disappear if it projects the background scenery like a chameleon instead of displaying images, so it made me think that we might be able to make it as an extension of a display technology. Also, the name Thermo-Optical Camouflage was very effective. I thought the name was so great that we should register the trademark (laughs). If the name was like Doraemon’s “Invisible Cape (Tomei Manto)”, it suddenly sounds like fantasy.

OTAQUEST: It’s been 15 years since the thermo-optical camouflage you’ve developed was originally discussed. What is your vision for the future?

Masahiko Inami: In the future, thermo-optical camouflage that uses meta-material which functions with visible lights might be developed but it would be two ways. In other words, you can see outside of a wall but you would be seen from outside as well, and if you cover yourself with such material, you cannot see outside of it. However, we can make a high-performance one-way mirror by projecting background scenery. For example, car interiors such as pillars would be transparent so that we can make less blind areas from the driver side. We would feel open even while driving in rain (laughs). Also, I think that it could be a tool to support medical diagnosis and surgeries by putting MRI images in layers.

If we make thermo-optical camouflage now, we might use the light-field technology. When we use a projector and a cape, the observation standing points to see it as transparent are limited. If we can make a sheet combined with a flexible organic EL and something like microlens, it would be closer to ultimate, but we can only make a transparent box with the current technology, and it is not bright enough, so a projector and a cape would be efficient at this stage.

Thermo-Optical Camouflage

OTAQUEST: You developed the remotely controlled nininbaori robot “Fusion”. What was your intention in the development?

Masahiko Inami: It’s joint research with Keio University, but I wanted to see if the relationship between humans would be changed by a robot. In other words, how does the relationship change when we take a unified communication that we work together instead of having a person to teach and a person to be taught? I found out after making the robot that people get along very quickly. You would feel like the other person is leading you in a dance by moving together and by working while the other person is moving your hands. At first, I was going to make a work-support tool that started with a question of whether a person can obtain a skill from others, but I ended up making a communication tool.

As an extension of that, I’m thinking about doing an experiment of what would happen when multiple people control one avatar at the same time in a VR space. If I relate this to fiction, it would be a transformation combining robot. We can find out whether only a leader is controlling the robot after they combined (laughs).

OTAQUEST: Does it increase the robot’s performance by multiple people controlling it at the same time?

Masahiko Inami: Bunraku is an example of successful case in some way.

Controlling a puppet is divided into the head, right arm, left arm, and legs, and it’s controlled separately by 3 people. It’s interesting that you feel like your skill is improved by teaming up with a higher skilled person.

OTAQUEST: I think science and technology are getting very close to the world of fiction, but what do you think about the relationship between technology and fiction?

Masahiko Inami: There is the idea of “Design Fiction” by a sci-fi author, Bruce Sterling, in which one designs fiction as a prototype of something that we cannot make it happen with the current technology. It’s the same for “Speculative Design” by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. The idea is to imagine a “question” first and start making it happen from what we can do now. With professor Hitoshi Takeuchi as the brains, “Japan Sinks” by Sakyo Komatsu used the then-most advanced theory of plate tectonics in order to bring more reality to the story. Also, this is why Japanese robot engineers (Yoshihiko Nakamura, Atsuo Takanishi, and Kazuhito Yokoi) and the name of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology are in the end credits for “Big Hero 6”. It’s important that the process of making fiction and the process of making it happen move like a spiral staircase while fiction makers and researchers communicate with each other. It’s important not only to rely on a genius fiction writer’s imagination.

Masahiko Inami, PhD

OTAQUEST: It’s the strength of Japan that we have opportunities to get familiar with robots through manga and anime.

Masahiko Inami: Japanese researchers are heavily influenced by fiction just like they are influenced by past theses, and I think the reason why Japanese robot research has a different perspective from overseas is the culture. It could help to solve a problem which technology is facing. Technologies like robots and cybernetics tend to give us fear and anxiety, but I think it can tell us that there could be a non-dystopian future by researchers exchanging information with fiction makers. Only people who are interested in science and technology come to a regular science and technology exhibition, but if we say it’s “Doraemon’s science and technology future exhibition”, more people would come. This is the power of story. Shirow-san said in “Ghost in the Shell” (in the comment on the flap of the cover) that the future should be brighter. It’s amazing. When I was 24 years old, I skipped through the comment though. The reason why people now wish the world of “Ghost in the Shell” would happen in real life is because the production has hope. The production “Ghost in the Shell” is not a medicine that works immediately. It’s like traditional Chinese medicine which works gradually.

OTAQUEST: Can you think of any other production other than “Ghost in the Shell” as an example of the interaction between technology and fiction?

Masahiko Inami: “Denno Coil” is the first example. The future we hope for is portrayed.
The director, Mitsuo Iso, went to the exhibition for mixed reality, “MR Technology EXPO2003” which I was involved in, and he told me that he used to think about making a magical girls production, but he realized that he doesn’t need magic anymore because using science and technology would make it into a sci-fi production. One of the successful examples is the “denno eyeglasses” in the anime that was born from tech gadgets that stimulated his imagination. Steve Jobs often talked about “technology married with liberal arts”, but Japan is about pop culture like Akihabara married with technology. For “Denno Coil”, younger generations who have watched the anime are now going into the research of VR and MR technology. That is to say that the Chinese medicine has been working.

OTAQUEST: So, “Dennno Coil” is a production in which we can experience the future just like when you experienced “TELESAR”.

Masahiko Inami: Yes. VR and cybernetics are experience-based technology that we understand by experiencing, not only by knowledge. “Ghost in the Shell” is also a simulation that has that concept.


Masahiko Inami, Ph.D.
Adviser to the President and a Professor in the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo.

Previous career until 2016
Assistant Professor at the University of Tokyo, Professor/Assistant Professor at the University of Electro-Communications, Guest Researcher in the Research Center for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Professor at Keio University Graduate school of media design.

He is interested in human augmentation engineering and entertainment engineering. He has developed devices regarding a sense and perception such as thermo-optical camouflage, a tactile sensation expansion device and a dynamic visual acuity enhancement device. His work was chosen for the “Coolest Invention of the Year” by New York Times. He won the award for young scientists by Minister of Education, Culture, Sports Science and Technology.
He is also directing the Inami JIZAI Body Project, JST ERATO. He proposed and organized the Superhuman Sports Society.

“Birth of Super Human! Human exceeds SF.” NHK Publishing, Inc., 2016.

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