Long-distance relationships between lovers, friends, and families are tough. So when San Francisco-based Tatsuki Adaniya split up with his girlfriend in Japan last year, he blamed the distance.
But the virtual reality developer didn't let heartbreak get him down for long.
Adaniya, who went to San Francisco from Japan on a one-year government scholarship, invented a "telepresence bear" that could help "transcend distance," shrinking physical barriers between people in different places and time zones. The idea is to teleport a headset-clad person from one end of the world directly into the stuffed animal, which interacts with friends and loved ones wherever they may be.
"Unlike Skype or FaceTime, you can't see someone's face with this tech," Adaniya, the creator of the "telepresence bear" told me. "We wanted the teddy bear to capture somebody's presence."
Once a person dons a VR headset, software developed by Adaniya springs into action, and the wearers movements sync up with the bear. You move your head, the bear moves its head. You "wave" your arm using an Xbox controller, then the bear waves its arm too. The software also allows the VR headset wearer to peer directly through the bear's beady camera eyes and gaze directly onto the stuffed toy's owner. Squeeze the bear and it responds; wave at it, and it turns to you with comforting words.
In a report, MIT Technology review describes how the bear allows people to communicate. "You can talk to the people near the bear through its speaker and hear them through its microphone, allowing for a two-way conversation with you in the role of a stuffed animal," writes Signe Brewster.
Teleportation has always fascinated humanity. In the popular sci-fi classic Star Trek, Captain Kirk commanded Scotty to "beam him up" back up to the Starship Enterprise using a quantum teleportation device. In the science realm, researchers in Sweden have created the illusion of teleported VR headset clad volunteers into other people's bodies before too. But until now, attempts haven't really been made to teleport someone into the body of a stuffed animal.
Adaniya, who heads up a startup called Adawarp in San Francisco, aims to release his telepresence teddies commercially in 2016 for around $200 (£130). He explained that he envisions that the teddy bear will find its bigger user base among parents and their children.
"Imagine if a child's dad went away. If they had the teddy bear with them, it would be like having him there. You could take the teddy bear (and your dad) on a walk with you, on a car journey, [and so on]," he said, noting that anywhere was possible as long as there was a wifi connection.
For some, the idea of a VR headset-connected teddy bear with active camera eyes might conjure a creepy Chucky doll or Goosebumps-style images of possessed stuffed toys. For others, however, the concept might just offer an interactive, sentimental method of keeping in touch.
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.