Japan’s Healthcare Innovation Goes Hand-In-Hand With Quality Of Life
Faced with the most elderly population in the world, Japan is applying its technological know-how to coping with the problems that arise from this social phenomenon, particularly in the area of healthcare. Technology is helping to make life as long as possible, but the value of life isn’t just a question of how long people can live. Quality of life is equally important and Japanese technology is making great strides in this area as well. The award-winning Syrinx is a wearable electrolarynx that gives a voice to people who have lost theirs through illness, while optical examination device imo opens up new possibilities in diagnosing glaucoma and other eye diseases.
Giving People Their Voice Back
As a scientist specializing in electricity engineering, University of Tokyo graduate student Takeuchi Masaki is well aware of how technology can contribute to the modern world. But with a deep interest in social welfare, he also recognizes the importance of applying his knowledge to improving people’s lives. “In order to actually meet people who have lost their voices, in the summer of 2019 I visited an organization called Ginreikai in Tokyo,” Takeuchi says of the group that helps people who have lost their voice.
Many people who have lost their voice use an electrolarynx to communicate. This is a vibrating, stick-like device that users have to hold near their throat. In combination with movements of the tongue and mouth, the electrolarynx echoes through the mouth to produce actual words. In this way, these people can communicate, but the downside is they have to hold the “stick” to their throats and the voice that is emitted is very robotic.
“I met many people who had lost their voice,” Takeuchi says. “And I learned about the issue of people who stopped communicating because they were embarrassed by the robotic voice of the electrolarynx, so I decided to solve that issue.” Takeuchi put together a team of the University of Tokyo graduate students to develop Syrinx.
The beauty of Syrinx is that it is wearable and produces a voice based on recordings of the user’s own voice. As the user manipulates the tongue and mouth to “speak,” Syrinx uses AI to reprocess the words using the stored version of the user’s own voice. Syrinx’s innovation was recognized at the Japan Healthcare Business Contest 2021 where it won the Grand Prix Prize, and it has also won several prestigious international prizes. Unfortunately for the 1.4 million potential customers worldwide, only prototypes exist at the moment.
Takeuchi Masaki has devoted his research to creating and improving Syrinx with countless tests and prototypes.
“Now, we’re concentrating on technological development, as we’re working closely with people who need our devices, taking their feedback into the development,” says Takeuchi, who emphasizes that his primary concern is what the users need rather than thinking of Syrinx as a commercial project. Further development will be needed to perfect Syrinx – the issue of vocal pitch is a difficulty that Takeuchi wants to overcome – and members of Takeuchi’s team return to Ginreikai regularly to get feedback. “I really want to make this device widely available for those people who have no voice and who maybe are hesitant to engage in society,” Takeuchi says. “Syrinx will help them gain a certain sense of freedom and they'll become more active, which would be a positive factor not just for the individual patients, but for society as a whole.”
A New Vision for Eye Testing
Being unable to express yourself is hard, but sensory deprivation means you are unable to even acquire information. “Eighty or ninety percent of the information you acquire comes from your eyes,” says Eguchi Tetsuya, the CEO of CREWT Medical Systems, Inc., which produces imo, a wearable visual field (perimetry) testing device for glaucoma and other eye problems. “Maintaining good eyesight is essential to quality of life.” The key to living with glaucoma, he adds, is detection. While many people go to the dentist every year to have their teeth checked, few do the same for their eyes. “Early detection of symptoms is important, so we want to provide an opportunity for early detection,” Eguchi says. The problem with glaucoma, he points out, is that it doesn’t present any overt symptoms until it is too late. Eguchi says imo, the world’s first head-mounted visual field (perimetry) testing device, is about detecting such symptoms.
Eguchi Tetsuya believes improving quality of vision leads to improving quality of life.
Typically, diagnosing glaucoma requires a time-consuming visit to an ophthalmologist and awkward test where you have to put your head in an apparatus and hold one eye open while a light is shone into it in a dark room at a clinic. imo, on the other hand, is designed to be worn on the head while both eyes remain open and does not need to be conducted in a dark room. As such, it is both easier and less time-consuming than conventional tests. Eguchi’s vision is to see imos available in other locations such as pharmacies. Currently, imo is being used in nearly 200 locations around Japan.
imo is portable and does not require a dark room, allowing the test to be performed in any location. (Right: ©︎ Yokohama Station Bldg. Eye Clinic)
It is estimated that around 80 million people in the world have glaucoma and many live in countries where it is not so easy to carry out medical checks. The portability of imo provides a solution to the problems of conventional eye testing. “Because of Japan’s aging population, I think we have become more aware here of the importance of testing,” Eguchi says. “Also, Japan has great expertise in optical engineering and it’s also easy for us to consult with medical experts.” Eguchi formed CREWT as an offshoot of optical equipment manufacturer Hoya; his three colleagues are all optical engineers. The company also has a close working relationship with University of Tokyo and Kindai University, while production of imo is outsourced.
Sales to date have been limited to Japan, but Eguchi is now looking for distributors to take imo overseas, initially targeting the United States and then Europe and the rest of the world. His motivation is to improve people’s quality of life. “We used to have a retirement age of 60,” he says. “But now, that’s changed and people may have to work until they are 75 in some cases. This means that you really need good eyesight – what we call ‘quality of vision’ – in order to maintain quality of life, both personally and professionally.”
Technological innovation often arises from small beginnings before blossoming into fruitful collaborations. Syrinx and imo were developed from personalized visions of the future and a desire to improve people’s quality of life. Both have huge potential to change people’s lives for the better not only in Japan, but around the world. As Takeuchi says: “I want to work to revive people's lost abilities and identity in order to realize a world where their individuality and personality are respected, and people’s quality of life improves.”
Note: All Japanese names in this advertorial are given in the traditional format, with the family name preceding the given name.
To learn more about CREWT Medical Systems, Inc., please click here.
To learn more about Syrinx, please click here.