Japanese technology fuels art creation – and profits

TOKYO – When Kazuki Umezawa saw the volumetric prototype of a figure that had been developed using StareReap technology from Japanese imaging company Ricoh, he was surprised at how great the body parts of the characters were he had drawn with such wild lines – even primitive ones, and notches had emerged in relief.

“Even though I expected this result, I was excited about the immersive feeling it gave when I saw it,” Umezawa, 36, told Nikkei Asia. “2.5D printing completes the creation.”

Best known for its cameras and office equipment such as laser printers and photocopiers, Ricoh opened its first art gallery earlier this month at the main crossroads of Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district, home to 15 works of art. developed by Umezawa using StareReap technology are currently on display. Another exhibition featuring a Japanese photographer will begin on July 10.

“We want to produce original works of art in collaboration with artists, rather than serial reproductions,” said Toshihiro Nomura, general manager of Ricoh’s StareReap project.

Ricoh is the latest example of an icon from Japan Inc. entering the art sector in search of new ventures, not only by fueling the creation of art itself, but by improving the how people can access existing works of art. As traditional markets mature, Ricoh and other companies such as NTT East are exploring ways to add value to the various technologies and infrastructures they have developed over the decades.

Launched as part of an internal business incubator program, StareReap is an attempt to reconfigure the business model of printing technology.

During his collaboration with Umezawa, some of the artwork created by Ricoh’s three “print directors” involved stacking up to 150 individual layers of resin – each just 23 microns thick, that’s about half the width of a human hair – on top of each other. . (Photo by Yuki Kohara)

For several years, Ricoh has been reproducing some of the world’s masterpieces of art such as the works of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, which is usually only done after paying a royalty to the owner. But participating in the actual artistic production process means turning “our engineers into artists,” Nomura said.

Reproducing the small irregularities on the surface of a particular art object involves several complex and technologically advanced steps – the object must first be scanned, then processed into a 2.5-dimensional image and printed using ‘special ink technology to reproduce the sharpness of the object. Ricoh’s original inkjet technology, which can print on a variety of media, served as the basis for this development.

During his collaboration with Umezawa, Ricoh’s three “print directors” used the data provided by the artist to produce 150 layers of resin, each just 23 microns thick, or about half the size. the width of a human hair, and stacked them on top of each other. to create a relief sculpture that cannot be done manually. Umezawa then added brilliant touches of gold with his hands to complete the piece.

“Print directors all have their own originality,” said Tatsuyuki Hayashi, one of the three print directors for Umezawa parts. “Some are good at editing photos, while others like to express detailed irregularities.”

Not only must the print manager have a thorough knowledge of the printing technology itself, but an affinity for the compatibility of various materials and inks is also essential. Being directly involved in the creation of a work of art is something new for Ricoh engineers, and “it made me want to do more and more things,” said Hayashi.

Ricoh aims to capitalize on this type of collaboration over the next two years, in part by selling the finished parts. Ricoh plans to transform its artistic production business into a separate company.

Telecommunications giant NTT East, meanwhile, is focused on harnessing its digital technology to offer new ways to experience art.

The company is currently holding an exhibition in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district dedicated to 18th and 19th century Japanese woodblock print masters Hokusai Katsushika and Hiroshige Utagawa, developing new tips for delving into some of their most famous works.

Inside a small room displaying Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanagawa”, visitors feel as though they are diving into the sea. (Photo by Yuki Kohara)

Upon entering a small room displaying the great wave of Hokusai off Kanagawa, for example, visitors begin to feel as if they are diving into the sea themselves, with the walls, ceiling, and floor all displaying images of dark blue seawater teeming with fish and other ocean creatures, including a giant octopus. Called “3D diving theater”, the enhanced virtual reality show allows people to feel the vibrancy of the wave in the picture.

In collaboration with image processing technology provider Ars Techne, the exhibit features more than 100 printed replicas, which have been scanned with 2 billion pixels to convey the most exact details, even the fibers of the original Japanese paper and printing irregularities. The replicas are so precise that viewers can magnify various details using a special non-contact display.

Several framed “inline images”, which change automatically over time, are also on display. Other works processed by Ars Techne are stored in NTT’s private data center, which is separate from its public network for security reasons.

As telecommunications services move to a flat rate model, “we are now proactively working on how to promote the use of communications,” said Manabu Kunieda, CEO of NTT ArtTechnology, a subsidiary of NTT East established in December. 2020 to focus on art. sector.

In addition to exploring new ways to enjoy art, NTT East’s digital network can also be used to help preserve cultural property from loss and damage caused by natural disasters and degradation over time, a added Kunieda.

Digital replicas of famous Japanese works of art can convey the finest details, even the fibers of the original Japanese paper and irregularities in the print. (Photo by Yuki Kohara)

Ars Techne, meanwhile, relies heavily on NTT East’s ability to provide a closed digital network.

“There is always a high risk of data leakage when it comes to image data that looks real in an open network,” said Iwao Kubota, CEO of the company which is the only authorized digital data provider. for the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. “NTT East has an infrastructure separate from the open network, which greatly facilitates the development of new businesses with our digital replicas. “

NTT ArtTechnology is working on the idea of ​​a dispersed satellite museum, displaying images online in various locations, from airports and hospitals to offices, and at the same time showing artwork from regional museums.

“It would help regional revitalization by possibly sending spectators to the museum,” Kunieda said. It’s also a viable option for gifting art amid COVID-19, which has made it difficult to accommodate hundreds of visitors to the same venue. “Digital technologies contribute to all aspects of the role of museums,” he said.

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