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Hi-Tech Seats Mimic the Professional Touch (March 31, 2005)

A hi-tech massage chair (National)
Thanks to advances in technology and heated competition among manufacturers, consumers who purchase massage chairs can now enjoy massages on a par with those offered by professional practitioners from the comfort of their own living rooms. The latest massage chairs are equipped with an array of sensors, pressure pads, and air bags, all designed to give back and shoulder massages that relieve the stresses of work and everyday life.

Personalized Service
Massage chairs have been around for many years, the most common ones being the coin-operated type found at hot-spring resorts. However, old models tend to give rather harsh and bumpy massages due to their technology, which is primitive by modern standards. Since around 2000, however, massage-chair technology has been greatly refined. Manufacturers have begun to produce hi-tech chairs capable of kneading the body gently and expertly. The rapid advance in chair technology was spurred by intense competition among chair makers vying for a chunk of a quickly expanding market.

Most chairs massage users with disc-shaped kneading pads or with air bags that expand and contract. To get the maximum benefit from an automatic massage, the back's pressure points must be precisely aligned with the pads. Yet no two backs are the same. Manufacturers have therefore developed technologies that enable the chairs to adapt to the distinctive features of each individual’s back, resulting in much more comfortable and effective massages. The innovations include optical sensors that accurately determine the position of the user's shoulders in the chair and pressure sensors that sense where the user's back muscles are by gauging how their weight is distributed.

Matsushita Electric Works, Ltd. developed its chairs after conducting research in which professional massage therapists were enlisted to massage mannequins covered in artificial skin and containing pressure sensors. Analysis of the data revealed patterns of finger pressure and kneading. The study underlined the importance of adjusting the power and direction of pressure and kneading in response to the direction and other features of a person's muscle structure. From this research, Matsushita developed a motor capable of moving vertically and horizontally around the back's pressure points and of instantly adjusting the power of the pressure pads.

Sensing Comfort
Sanyo Electric Co., meanwhile, enlisted the technology of lie detectors to produce its new generation of massage chairs. The company has developed a type of sensor capable of determining the effectiveness of a massage. When people feel comfort and pain, these sensations are reflected by changes in their pulse or sweat patterns. Sanyo's sensors monitor these two characteristics while a massage takes place. By analyzing changes in the pulse and sweat readings, the sensor can tell whether the person is enjoying the massage or not, and it instantaneously adjusts the chair's pressure pads accordingly.

The products of Fujiiryoki Co., which has been making massage chairs for about 50 years, use air bags to apply the pressure. The bags massage gently around the pressure points on the outer edges of the shoulders, key areas when relieving fatigue and stiffness in the upper body.

The popularity of massage chairs has not escaped the attention of the tourist industry. The Hotel New Otani Hakata in Fukuoka Prefecture, for example, has installed massage chairs in some of its guest rooms. This has proved a popular service, especially among men on business trips.

Deluxe Chairs Dominate the Market
Despite hefty price tags, sales of hi-tech massage chairs such as these have risen fast in the last few years. Back in 2001, around 400,000 massage chairs were sold, a number that rose to 470,000 in 2004, according to research by Matsushita. What is more, around 70% of chairs were priced at ¥200,000 ($1,905 at ¥105 to the dollar) or more, with many selling for more than ¥300,000 ($2,857).

When massage chairs first appeared around 50 years ago, most were sold to public bathhouses for commercial use. As Japan's economy began to grow rapidly, more and more ended up in private homes. Today's models are finding favor by adapting to an era in which the widespread use of PCs both at home and at work has made stiff shoulders a very common complaint.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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