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Message for students 2020: Kenichiro Fukushi

February 14, 2020

Using data science for good health

Kenichiro Fukushi
Assistant Manager
Data Science Research Laboratories

Fukushi belongs to a group dealing with healthcare and wellness and his research theme is to develop wearable sensors to promote healthier lifestyle. His hobbies include cycling and he regularly goes on trips to refresh himself, taking his bike together with him when riding various modes of public transportation.

A gait analysis insole born from the voices of people in the field

I’m currently involved in the development of an insole-type sensor which helps users improve their health by helping improve their posture when walking. It’s a product that senses walking speed, stride length, ground contact angle, ground-off angle, height of raised leg, and extorsion distance to analyze the collected data comprehensively, and feeds back a gait analysis score and some advice to a smartphone app.
The reason why I started doing research on this is because I took part in the ASU (Academic Science Unit) program spearheaded by Tohoku University Hospital. In order to make my research a success I needed more than just engineering knowledge. I needed to listen to what people in the field had to say in order to make something truly useful. I actually visited a hospital and listened to what the medical personnel had to say and observed patients before the product was settled on the way as it is now.
The example I provided above is hardly unique. In order for research and business to become connected, it becomes important to properly set and identify the technical issues which have to be resolved and to always keep those things in mind while working. For example, let’s say there’s a customer or a market that prioritizes how real-time something is. In that case, even if you were to create an algorithm that can be unbelievably accurate, if it’s something that’s difficult to make faster, then what you’ve created becomes worthless. In such a situation, it becomes necessary to fundamentally alter your research approach.
In that sense, the experience this time of using crowdfunding to gage marketplace demand at an early stage has been extremely valuable. Such an approach allows us to start small and quickly make adjustments based on the feedback and desires of our backers before laying the groundwork for full-scale production. I believe that this will become the new research approach in companies. You could say that one of NEC's appeals is the flexibility and variety of development styles to which the company can adapt to.
For now, I’m focusing my research and development on this insole with the aim of changing the common view of people currently that you’ll become unable to walk when you become older.

What may seem like a detour can become a useful experience

When I was a student, I did research on image recognition technology, so the research field was considerably changed after I joined NEC. However, I had studied overseas at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for about a year and did research on user interfaces, and it turns out that that experience is proving useful in my current research. It was for a system designed to teach things like dance and Tai Chi movements to a person without a human instructor by linking motion capturing with vibrating motors to a person’s body. The system compared a person’s movements to the ideal movements stored in the database, calculated the differences in real time, and then sent vibrations to areas where the movements were incorrect. The technology and ideas behind that research are tied to the current insole sensor.
To be honest, I had my share of doubts and worries about studying overseas. It had nothing to do with my PhD, so not only was I not going to be getting any credit, it also meant delaying my graduation by over a year. However, looking back and considering how my experiences have managed to tie into my current research, I think it’s important not to limit yourself to your own field or specialization, but to experience various things. Even though things may seem like a detour at the time, I think engaging in all sorts of things at your own pace will likely prove useful once you start working.

Broadening your horizons and enjoying your research

The reason I became interested in working for NEC was because of my experience studying overseas at MIT. I happened to become close friends with a researcher from NEC who was stationed at MIT. That person didn’t try to build a wall against things that were outside their specialization. They showed an interest in my research theme and offered me all kinds of advice. I got the impression that that person had an open mind and was really enjoying their research and I thought it might be fun to work at a laboratory where people like that person worked.
Once I actually started working for NEC, I found that there were even more researchers working in various fields than I’d expected and I feel that’s helped broaden my horizons. For example, there are teams working on quantum computing, face recognition, AI technologies, and security technologies. There’s an abundance of talented researchers and we all interact with each other frequently. When I want to pick someone’s brain, I’m free to do so, and even my colleagues who joined the company at the same time I did are specialized in different fields, so working with them is always very exciting.
When commercializing technology, it’s important to see things from the perspective of customers and people in the field, and to also utilize the knowledge of researchers from a wide variety of fields. And that’s why the environment at NEC is really meaningful. The laboratories at NEC have a lot of strengths and they’re interesting places in my opinion.

A day at work

Message to my past self in my school days

Don’t be afraid to face detours. Keep your pace.
Don’t be afraid to face detours. Keep your pace.