Looking to Japan: how mixed reality can mitigate an aging workforce

Senior man wearing a mixed reality headset
3 mins to read

Learn how Japan’s rapid technological evolution is fueled by a need to offset a full-fledged national crisis: an aging population.

Old age takes its toll on everyone, none more so than Japan. With its rapidly aging population, the country with the world’s third-largest economy faces economic challenges, from an exhausted healthcare system to a chronically depleting workforce. In spite of relentless labour shortages, Japan is notorious for its opposition to foreigners.

Instead of relying on human capital, the nation has resorted to innovation and technologies, like mixed reality (MR), to alleviate the ongoing turbulence and to transition into greater job automation. The need for immediate change has set Japan on a course of accelerated digital transformation, as they wholeheartedly welcome mixed reality tools into its workplace and healthcare system.

Threat or opportunity?

By 2065, it is estimated that 38% of Japan’s population will be over the age of 65. While some view this swift drop in workers (crippled by the lack of foreign labourers) as a looming threat, this dilemma can actually be a powerful incentive for automation. Japan’s economic situation makes the country an interesting landscape for developing and optimizing MR-based technologies.

Integrating MR can enhance the productivity and safety measures for its current workforce. Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (TEPCO) leverages MR’s abilities to improve efficiencies in its factories. The company announced in May 2018 that its partnership with IT developer Pocket Queries Inc. will engineer MR-based tools to create efficient three-dimensional renderings of data on the factory floor. Optimizing its expertise in augmented-reality and virtual-reality game design, Pocket Queries intends to enhance workers’ experiences with functional MR technology, adapted distinctly for the industrial sector. The organization hopes to streamline production, inspections and communications for employees of multi-generations.

Through MR and automation, companies are reconceiving the workplace to accommodate aging employees. Functional MR technology reduces the amount of time and efforts spent on physically taxing duties for senior workers. Instead, they can spend their valuable time on training and mentoring new employees – thus nurturing talent and leadership for the future.  

Partnership with the West

With its economy heavily tied with overseas trading, Japan naturally partnered up with the West and integrated their tools to improve productivity back home. In April 2018, JRCS, a Japanese supplier of maritime systems, collaborated with Microsoft and incorporated their HoloLens MR headsets for training and maintenance work.

Paired with Microsoft’s language translation proficiencies, JRCS is experimenting the use of the headsets to train merchant shipping and marine industry personnel in their native language. Among its many capabilities, Microsoft’s HoloLens exhibits maintenance operations over the serviced machinery. The partnership between JRCS and Microsoft signifies their migration to a digitally enhanced workplace, as they address the labour shortage in the industrial sector. These newly adopted MR tools will ensure a smooth transition as retiring employees’ hand over the reins to their younger counterparts. Despite having less bodies on the factory floor, the remaining employees will be equipped to continue their jobs with little to no disruption.

Investing in healthcare

Beyond the workplace, Japan’s aging population is constantly depleting healthcare resources. On one hand, there is an insufficient amount of healthcare professionals; on the other hand, there has been a massive influx of senior citizens that require fleets of full-time caregivers.

In recent times, the nation has developed and employed elder-care robots as an extension of healthcare professionals. While robots seem like a more glamorous option, MR-based technologies can be a more cost-efficient solution for elder-care. Studies have shown that MR tools are effective for recoveries such as limb rehabilitation and improved cognitive memory. Still in its early development, MR has the potential to become a major game-changer in elder-care for Japan. Seniors who play video games with MR and AR technologies have been shown to improve reflex control, visualization, and spatial capabilities, as well as cross-generation communication and social skills.

Tsunami of change

While the rest of the world worries about robots taking over their jobs, Japan is struggling to fill empty seats and priming tech-savvy workers to lead a new digitally-integrated world. Is Japan’s case that unique? The World Health Organization has reported by 2050, two billion people across the globe will be over the age of 60.

Coupled with higher life expectancies and lower fertility rates, other developed countries will have to confront their own aging populations. Mixed reality technology is certainly one answer to this demographic dilemma.  Let’s see how other countries will adopt this technology.