Aris folds her tiny hands across her aproned lap and smiles. "If you need me, please poke me to get my attention!" she says in a peppy, high-pitched voice. "Just don't poke me in a weird place! "
As if to deliberately defy her request, Taisei Tanaka, who is sitting next to me in a soccer jersey and jeans, lifts up Aris' poofy skirt with a stick, revealing the ends of her black thigh-high socks and a glimpse of her blue panties. Aris screams at the top of her lungs. "Please stop! This kind of thing is not good!"
Tanaka has every right to lift up Aris' skirt. He is her creator, after all. Besides, Aris is not a real person; she doesn't even really exist. She is an optical illusion, a three-dimensional projection of a brown-haired girl in a maid outfit who lives inside of a cube that looks like an oversized die. The cube has QR codes pasted on each of its sides that uses image recognition, motion-tracking, and other computer-generated data to project images into space when recorded with a webcam.
I'm at the office of Geisha Tokyo Entertainment, the company that makes and sells the popular Augmented Reality Figure Aris. At first glance, it's a cookie cutter Japanese workspace with long fluorescent ceiling lights and walls painted a sterile white. But the normalness ends there. The whiteboard by the entrance is covered with a 20-frame manga featuring egg-shaped characters in a comedy routine; a rack holding half a dozen guitars sits in the back corner of the room. Wigs and figurines line the rows of desks crammed into the 800 square foot or so space. As I look around the office upon arrival, one of the employees, a tall guy in a bandanna, waves at me with a didgeridoo in one hand and two stuffed Pokemon in the other.
Three years ago, Tanaka, a lawyer-turned-engineer-turned-entrepreneur, quit his career as a game designer and gathered an all-star team of multi-talented people with Tokyo University pedigrees to start an outfit that would take "high-tech entertainment" to a whole new level. "When visitors come to Japan, they buy electronics, sing karaoke, watch anime, and play video games," he says. "I'm trying to bring high-tech into that entertainment subculture."
The company's first product was a flop &mdash it was a kooky cell phone game that sent players on missions to take photos of good-looking people on the street. The app used face recognition software to determine whether the subjects were really attractive or not. "It was pretty well known among media art circles, but we didn't make that much money from it," Tanaka tells me. Then, in March 2008, Tanaka saw a rerun of an anime called Dennō Coil on TV, and something clicked. "When the kids in the anime put on augmented reality glasses and see things that aren't really there, I thought, I want to make those glasses." When he talked to his colleagues at Geisha about this, they decided to take it one step further &mdash they would make a humanoid augmented reality pet. The technology was already out there &mdash university researchers had tested similar prototypes more conventional pets like dogs and cats. "We wanted to do something that would market augmented reality in a way that's... meaningful. We were like, wouldn't it be awesome if you could look up her skirt, or take off her clothes?" By April, the guys at Geisha had a prototype of Aris, and when the product hit stores in the fall, the first 3,000 units sold out within three days.
At Geisha's headquarters, Aris lives inside a computer screen in a makeshift living room in the corner of the office. Boxes of gadgets and books are stacked atop a tatami mat floor; there's a sitting area with blankets and an exercise ball in front of a flat-screen TV and an old school A/C unit. Tanaka puts the augmented reality cube on the table, powers up the webcam, and clicks on a few links on his PC. I stare expectantly at the screen. All of a sudden, Aris tumbles out of the box, jumps to her feet, and starts chatting away. "Hi, I'm Aris!" she squeals. "I'm a genuine maid! Master, I am at your service!" Of course, Aris didn't really tumble out of the box &mdash it just appears that way on the monitor. The Aris kit, which sells for about $100 online and at electronics stores throughout Japan, includes a special stick and cards, also with QR codes on them, that allow users to poke Aris, change her outfit, or give her gifts.
Aris, the virtual maid, combines the fetishism of maid cafe culture with augmented reality technology and the futuristic storyline typical of modern anime. According to the backstory invented by Tanaka and his team, she is the daughter of a geisha and an inventor from the year 2025 &mdash due to the declining birthrate, the Japanese government has adopted a new policy that allows children to be created virtually and raised by humans. Once she appears via the webcam, Aris is the ideal sweet and subservient desktop companion &mdash she sweeps up virtual dust from your keyboard, pays you compliments, starts dancing like a cheerleader if you give her virtual pompoms, and whines flirtatiously when you flip up her virtual skirt or take off her virtual apron. "Everything about Aris is made according to my tastes," Tanaka says. "I designed a character that I thought was cute &mdash her voice, her actions, everything." Tanaka is currently trying to figure out how to incorporate haptic technology &mdash vibrations and motors that simulate the sense of touch &mdash into the next generation of Aris, so users could actually feel something on the tip of their fingers when they poke her.
Geisha is a cool company &mdash it has the feel of a startup, or maybe a college dorm. Because of the small size, everyone here has multiple jobs, each one catered to his or her unique talents. When Tanaka knocks on a tiny soundproof door hidden behind a row of desks, a man in overalls and an afro steps out and chirps: "What are you doing??" in a perfect sassy old lady voice. Tanaka later tells me that he's the voice actor and sound engineer for Geisha's new comedic anime series called SakuranBoy DT, which is about a random, no-name provincial town in Yamagata Prefecture. The soundtrack and illustrations for the anime are also done in-house by employees who ordinarily keep books or fix servers. While Tanaka is showing me a clip from SakuranBoy on his computer, a man and woman both dressed as the blue-haired vocaloid Hatsune Miku come tumbling out of the elevator. They've just spent the whole day pole-dancing in a nearby park for a promo video for their newest product, an iPhone app that lets you play the imaginary character's imaginary instrument in real life. When I smile at them in greeting, the man takes off his wig, bows slightly with his matted hair, white-caked face, and red lipstick, and then shuffles away to his desk. "He's one of our designers," Tanaka says, laughing. "Today, he's a cosplayer."
Geisha has sold over 10,000 Aris figures and continues to make kooky, surprising products that don't really fit into any existing category of entertainment. And while they make it seem like everything is just for fun, their ambitions are serious and grandiose. "We work in the spirit of prepping for an annual school festival," Tanaka says, "But we plan on surpassing Nintendo in 20 years."
About Lisa Katayama
I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.