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Catch the Wind, Challenge the World: Windsurfing SE Makes Advances in Sailing Technology by Creating Windsurfing Lab, an IoT Training System

[The Power to Create the Future Vol. 5 (Part I)]

It All Started with the Goal of Finding the Quickest Way to Improve His Windsurfing Skills

A windsurfer skillfully controls the sail on his or her board to ride with the wind. With National Sail Number JPN224 at his back, Fujitsu digital innovator Shinya Yokoi glides on the water. He is a system engineer (SE) and also a competitive windsurfer.

Shinya Yokoi, of the Fujitsu Digital Transformation Center, smiling on the shore of Lake Motosu, the spot where he regularly goes for windsurfing training

Windsurfing is a sport in which a person rides a surfboard that has a yacht sail attached, powered only by the wind. Although the wind is the only force acting upon the board, the board still reaches speeds of 40 to 50 km/h, with the current world record being 100 km/h. Because of this, some call windsurfing “the F1 of the sea” and it is popular in Europe and the US.

“I was hooked on windsurfing the moment I started--I kept going back for the speed and thrill of gliding above the surface of the water. The skills needed to control the sail in order to efficiently use the power of the wind, however, were highly sensory-based, and I was unable to identify the difference between fast windsurfers and myself, even though I had been training to become a better windsurfer. When I asked professional windsurfers and instructors for tips, they would tell me to 'keep the mast (the sail's shaft) upright and pull in on it' but I had no idea exactly how 'upright' it needed to be and how much I needed to 'pull.' I wanted to find the quickest way to improve my skills by using sensors to convert these obscure and difficult-to-understand sailing skills into data. This led to the creation of the Windsurfing Lab.”

Build Skills in Three Years Instead of Ten by Quantifying Sail Movements with Sensors!

The Windsurfing Lab is a new, IoT-enabled windsurfing training system. A device that simultaneously records GPS information and 9-axis sensory data (acceleration, gyroscope, and geomagnetic data) is attached to a sail. The collected data is then analyzed in real time using Fujitsu's cloud computing service to visualize sail movement, board speed, and direction as a 3D model or graph.

The collected data is immediately sent to a smartphone, tablet, or PC and can be compared to past data or data from other windsurfers.

In this screenshot, the data is collected in the cloud. Noise from vibrations, like waves, is removed and accurate sail angles for various board speeds and directions are obtained. “In the future, real-time coordination between position data and the cloud could save windsurfers in emergencies.”

“Current training techniques analyze speed and riding methods by comparing video footage shot from a small action camera with GPS information. Although fast windsurfers can steadily hold their masts upright, video alone cannot allow us to know precise sail angles.

“With a 3D model or graph, on the other hand, the collected data can be compared with past data or data from other windsurfers. This allows us to learn from skilled windsurfers or to objectively understand our own riding habits. Seeing our points to improve on as numerical data allows us to create a clear image of how we are supposed to move, dramatically improving training efficiency.

“In just one or two years, I was able to develop sailing skills using this training system that your average windsurfer would spend at least ten years to master. Although I do not have much racing experience since it is only my third year playing this sport, I have already won an amateur competition. I hope to keep this momentum to becoming a professional in the quickest way possible (laughs).”

What Began as a Summer Vacation Project--Prototyping the Sensor in the Co-creation Environment PLY

The first sensor prototype, made using a wooden coaster from Fujitsu as the insulator with a lunch box and a plastic bag from a dollar shop as the water-proof enclosure. “Everything about it felt hand made (laughs).”

Yokoi started developing the sensor during his 2016 summer vacation. He spent approximately two weeks building a prototype at PLY, the co-creation environment that Fujitsu opened at around the same time.

“I went to Akihabara and DIY stores to buy parts, learned soldering at the PLY workshop, designed the circuit and 3D printed fittings ... yes, it really was like a summer vacation project. It was a handmade sensor using things that I had easy access to. I received negative feedback such as 'Wouldn't it be too difficult to collect accurate data because of the waves?' Yet as a competitive windsurfer, I was confident that I could do it, and I was able to collect the data that I was looking for with the proper processing. I asked more than 60 windsurfers at the seaside and around lakes, 'Would you be interested in using this kind of system?' Their reaction was quite positive. Professional windsurfers also commented that they 'have wanted a system like this for a long time.' I then realized that this system could become a viable business.”

The second prototype. “I enhanced its water resistance using a pull box used at construction sites for the case. It began to look more like a sensor system, when you compare it to the first one (laughs).”

The Biggest Challenge Was Turning a Hobby into a Business

After receiving positive feedback on the system, Yokoi launched the Windsurfing Lab project in December 2016. He entered a business competition by himself and became one of the final 20 competitors out of a pool of 1,000. He saw the steps he needed to take to start this business, but came face-to-face with a difficult challenge.

“Windsurfing was announced as one of the events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and is likely to grow in popularity. However, the current windsurfing market is small and new businesses would not be immediately profitable. Quitting my job and starting a new company would be a huge risk to take.

“I consulted many people to find a way to make this business happen. This led to the idea of starting a new project within Fujitsu, but there was the problem that large companies were hesitant to try new things. I was frustrated and didn't know what to do. Luckily, the Digital Transformation Center opened and I saw this as an opportunity and I gave them my pitch.

“I wanted to put in more than just my SE experience into this project; I wanted to inject my lifelong passion for becoming the world's greatest windsurfer as well. The management responded to this by saying 'Let's make it happen together.' I was very happy and it gave me the determination to succeed.”

The Digital Front Center was established to create world-changing businesses using the power of digital technology. Here, Yokoi started a new project as a digital innovator.

“We Want to Support Your Ambition”--Yokoi Makes New Partners

The winds continued to blow in his favor. The Japan Windsurfing Association acknowledged the project and allowed approximately five months of sensor demonstrations and experiments at competitions, starting with the Windsurfing World Cup in Yokosuka in May 2017.

“My handmade sensor wasn't quite good-looking enough for professional windsurfers to use (laughs) and it was hitting its performance limit. When I asked the people who came to PLY if there was any chance that I could make a better-performing sensor, they introduced me to a semiconductor manufacturer named Lapis Semiconductor. I was planning on handling all of the development and so I asked them for technical advice. Then they said 'We don't know if it'll be a viable business, but we want to support your ambition. We'll produce the sensor!' I was thrilled.”

A compact, high-performance sensor by Lapis Semiconductor. “I made the waterproof case at TechShop.”

His demonstration of the latest sensor at the Windsurfing World Cup in Yokosuka attracted a huge amount of attention. Many world-class windsurfers said “I want to start using it right now!” or offered themselves as testers saying “I want to become a test rider!” This event marked a huge leap forward towards the project achieving a usable product.

The sensor demonstration at the Windsurfing World Cup in Yokosuka. The sensor also attracted attention from overseas world-class windsurfers and press.

The second part of the interview will focus on the future of this project from Yokoi's perspective. Let us find out about his future vision and tips for driving innovation.

Shinya Yokoi
Digital Front Center
Digital Front Division
Fujitsu Limited
1983: Born in Aichi. He spent many of his school days practicing judo and baseball.
2007: Joined the Fujitsu Group. He developed backbone systems, mainly for customers in the logistics industry.
2014: Windsurfed for the first time. He won the Lake Motosu Championship 2015 Beginners' Division.
His windsurfing career started.
2017: Created the joint experiment project, Windsurfing Lab, at the Digital Front Center to improve the techniques of competitive windsurfers. As a developer and a competitive windsurfer, he developed the training system.