A Vision Ahead of Its Time

Iwane Laboratories,Ltd. IP

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Category: IT

Iwane Laboratories was making pioneering steps in computer vision long before Silicon Valley

Nowadays, we associate street view maps with a certain search giant, but Iwane Laboratories' mobile mapping products beat even the world’s largest online mapping service to the punch by several years. The most impressive aspect of the feat is that the company uses a completely novel approach to generating these first-person virtual maps.

And they did it far ahead of their time. Iwane’s founder Waro Iwane began his research into computer vision nearly 40 years ago. As Masaki Akiyama, Director of Technology Sales and Marketing for Iwane Laboratories, puts it, “The idea of computer-based 3D vision may be very popular now, but 38 years ago, it would have been like talking about UFOs and doing research on aliens!”

Interface of Iwane Mobile Mapping System, courtesy of Iwane Laboratories, Ltd.


A car-mounted Iwane Mobile Mapping System, courtesy of Iwane Laboratories, Ltd.

Mapping on the Go

One thing that sets the Iwane Mobile Mapping System (IMS for short) apart from other mobile mapping solutions is that it doesn't require the use of an inertial measurement unit, or IMU. This gyroscope-like device is used to recognize three-dimensional movement, also known as yaw, pitch, and roll. Two of the greatest drawbacks of IMUs, however, is that they are comparatively expensive, and they often require a time-consuming calibration process when they are being used.

Iwane's patented CV (camera vector) mapping method, coupled with a GPS unit, uses image recognition software that can recognize up to 200 data points in each frame of video. Working from footage recorded at 16 frames per second by two cameras at once, Iwane's software can generate extremely precise map data. The mapping cameras' portability means that they can be used on land, sea, or air vehicles, or carried by hand for indoor mapping applications.

The technology is currently being used by surveying companies, as well as infrastructure agencies in Japan and overseas. For instance, Iwane’s technology was used by the Department of Infrastructure for road asset management – that is, quickly and accurately counting light poles, signals or other equipment along a roadway. Several years ago, the company signed a patent-licensing agreement with the major Japanese mapping company Topcon Corporation, netting Iwane several million US dollars

Real-time footage from top and rear cameras, courtesy of Iwane Laboratories, Ltd.

Masaki Akiyama, Director of Technology Sales and Marketing for Iwane Laboratories

Setting a Future Course

Iwane Laboratories has always had a long-term goal of creating a fully functioning “robot eye” that can be used in AI applications; however, patenting the results of their research and spinning them out to market-viable products has proven to be a successful business model for the firm.

Going forward, the company is looking to harness its more recent development – the parts reconstruction method (PRM), a patented, cloud-based software that can be used to identify objects even when only a small part of that object can be seen on camera. Combined with the IMS, the technology could be a natural fit for the rapidly growing driverless car industry. Akiyama explains that the world’s major carmakers all plan to develop their own in-house driverless systems, but he believes that IMS's dynamic mapping capabilities could add a final level of polish to these self-driven vehicles.

“90 percent will be finished by the companies themselves, but we will be able to provide that final 10 percent for all of them.”

Based on interview in December 2015