Can AR help save you from natural disasters? In Japan, yes!


Article by Wikitude partner GrapeCity

Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines are among the world’s most disaster-prone countries. In these areas, AR apps can play a critical role in disseminating disaster prevention information and potentially save lives. Kimio Kuga, CEO of Harbor Solutions Inc., is one person making that happen.

Below he talks about developing AR disaster prevention apps for the public sector.

What motivated you to create disaster prevention apps?

I used to teach programming at the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and at the Digital Hollywood University. One of my seniors was doing research on “The Great Hanshin earthquake” that occurred on January 17th 1995. I heard a lot about this incident and that inspired me to contribute to the issue, building apps that would assist preventing these disasters.

I embraced the duty to save lives, protect the next generations and contribute to society. Since then I have been making efforts towards developing disaster prevention solutions, which provide safety and security based on the concept of ‘risk communication’.

What is Risk Communication?

One can easily get information of particular hazard; earthquake, tremor, tsunami, flood, landslide, volcano, active fault etc., in affected areas using the hazard map distributed by the government. Now, based on this information, it is necessary to evaluate the present area in terms of disaster risk and preparedness measures. For example, how much risk is there in that area, and what kind of action need to be taken when a disaster occurs. This is called Risk Communication.

For this risk communication awareness, I want to visualize the G-spatial data through the app and then distribute this information to users. G-space (as defined by the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications) means using information of a particular location and displaying it along with the other information on space. “G” stands for Geospatial Technology and refers to “Location information x Space”.

This isn’t your first disaster app… Can you tell us more about other apps you built?

The Minato City disaster prevention app makes use of AR technology to illustrate in 3D the height of tsunami waters, including hazard maps for that location.

When a disaster strikes, this app pushes notification to users and shows information about the hazard and evacuation sites on a map.

Next, there is the Ishinomaki Tsunami AR app. This app was developed by the Ishinomaki Future Support Association and introduces the past, present & future of central Ishinomaki through photos. Users can also check the record of tsunami inundations with augmented reality.

With the Iwanuma Earthquake Lore and Disaster Prevention app, if you hold a mobile device towards the environment in Senri Expo Park, you can have a 360 degree view of epicenter and Sendai Airport in Augmented Reality environment (air tag).

Recently, we have started offering ‘city Apps’ that includes tourism information. It works as a tourist promotion during in everyday living, but in case of disaster, accident, or terrorist attack, it provides necessary information. One example is the Tanegashima Nishinoomote City Information Distribution App. It will share information about Tanegashima and also provide disaster prevention information to residents, tourists, and people who visit to see rocket launch.

How do smartphones and AR work in disaster prevention?

In my opinion, first of all it is very important to provide the latest information about disaster prevention through smartphones. The infrastructure of a city changes every year. Also, if the roads are blocked due to a disaster, than it might be difficult to reach the evacuation center. Thus, it is necessary for the Crisis Management Department to deliver real-time information and provide more timely and reliable evacuation instructions, through apps like the “Patrol APP” (under development).

In the case of AR, there is the advantage of presenting information in such a visual way that saves the trouble of map decryption and explanation by words. For this, we have to consider Universal Design specifications. There is an increase of foreign tourists in recent years in Japan and it is difficult to explain them with Japanese text. In such cases, using Augmented Reality for visualizing the data is very helpful. You can not only get the information of evacuation sites on the map, but also find the direction and distance until a particular evacuation center using GPS.
To test this scenario in one of the TV shows on Disaster Prevention Day, I have tried the Minato City disaster prevention app with the foreigners to see whether they could find the nearest evacuation center. In this case, AR saved the day and they were evacuated successfully.

Why did you choose Wikitude to work with?

Initially we were using a different Augmented Reality SDK, but after they ended their service, we found Wikitude SDK, and found out app developer GrapeCity is an official partner of Wikitude in Japan. The office is actually located in the Miyagi prefecture, one of the major stricken areas of the Great East Japan Earthquake. But the biggest advantage of Wikitude for us is that you can develop AR apps for android and iOS simultaneously, with the same code.

How was your experience with Wikitude?

Right now I am using the UI as it is; however I want to get it customized in terms of display like airtag (POI) appearance, UI design such as position radar, and offer detailed information for selected objects, etc. I want to stick to the concept of “easy to see” and “easy to use”, Wikitude allows that.
Due to the nature of disaster prevention apps and City apps, we rely on location-based AR apps. However, we are also developing markerless recognition AR apps so that users can have options to scan the available scenes around them.

What is Harbor Solutions’s key vision for the future?

Well, we will focus on expanding our current assignments; “Disaster Prevention App” and “City App” while keeping the “Resilience” in mind.

Resilience refers to “Restoring capacity”. We want to work towards strengthening the national land, protecting the natural environment by promoting the “National Resilience” and “Green Resilience”. We are aiming to create a “City App” that can contribute to building a city with safety & security, and that integrates into natural environment so as to fulfill the purpose of providing a place for sightseeing in normal times and protecting the people when disaster strikes.

Our Quasi-zenith satellite “MICHIBIKI”, the GPS will be accurate by 10 cm by 2018. With this, visualizing features such as airtag will be further improved with geo-referencing.

We are also focusing on Multilingual Artificial Intelligence (AI) for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. It will be able to inform you about the safety and security of your current location with the help of speech recognition that uses artificial intelligence. We hope to contribute towards “Strong and Supple JAPAN” and “Resilient JAPAN” by promoting these latest ICT technologies and information sharing.

Great! Thanks for your answers.

No problem. I think Augmented Reality has a strong impression of entertainment industry as it has been broadly applied to it, but here in apps like “Disaster Prevention” it demonstrates a great role.

About the client: Harbor Solutions Inc. develops disaster reduction and disaster prevention apps for smartphones using ICT technologies. Their services include planning, designing, building, selling and maintaining such apps.

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