Canon EXPO 2023: holding the future in both hands

An aerial view of the Canon EXPO at Pacifico Yokohama North exhibition centre. Visitors standing at booths of technology surround a central brightly lit ‘tree’ formed of green cartoon-like bubbles atop a bronze trunk.

We are far beyond cameras and printers now…”

In 1967, the world was a very different place. Beatlemania gave us the soundtrack to truly exciting developments in technology – Concorde made its first flight, the very first heart transplant took place, and the foundations of computer science were being laid. It was also the year of Canon’s 30th anniversary and one that marked a radical shift for an organisation that was known for its high-quality cameras and optical products. The brand was ‘reborn’ with the slogan of "Cameras in the Right Hand, Business Machines in the Left". Considering that this was over fifty years ago, these two divisions represented the cutting edge of what was possible, both recreationally and in businesses all over the world.

And this is how we have been best known ever since. Rightly so, as each hand has seen its products refined, developed and innovated in the subsequent fifty years to become the best of the best. The name Canon is synonymous with excellence.

But the world, in all its magnificence, does not stay the same. And neither do we.

As the decades passed, our organisation grew in size and also complexity. New world challenges necessitate new world solutions. And it stands to reason that, often, these will span a number of industries. So, unravelling the Venn Diagram of the technologies that we create and the markets we serve became a tall order indeed. It became such that the only way to truly understand the full extent of our capabilities, both horizontally and vertically, was to see it. And so, our first EXPO was born.

Every five years, Canon EXPO gives us an opportunity to show the world what our brand really looks like – and when you’ve known a company primarily for its cameras and printers, it can come as something of a surprise to enter a space filled with…well yes, cameras and printers but also a world of technologies that can transport you from the nucleus of a cell to a detailed view of the world from space. In a single (albeit 6300m2) space.

EXPO 2023 was particularly special in that we’d waited three years longer than the standard five to hold the event, due to the pandemic. However, as Mr Mitarai, our global Chairman and CEO, explained in his keynote speech, “The world has changed drastically in the last three years” and this brings into sharp focus the real priorities for us and all global organisations.

His 4000-strong audience quickly packed the room, eager to hear from the man who not only steered Canon to global prominence but is influential and respected in his own right. Mr Mitarai placed important emphasis on the good that organisations can do in the world and how companies must provide new value to society, generating profits by solving social issues. Revisiting his words ­– “We are far beyond cameras and printers now…” – in this context tells you where Canon sits in the world today and intends to be in the future. Printing, of course, plays a huge role in our future, but it sits alongside imaging, medical and industrial business groups, framing multiple and powerful innovations in tech with a solid business structure that is as focused on the future as our R&D is.

Four Japanese men in suits with red floral buttonholes stand behind a red balcony with their arms held up in a wave.

Mr Mitarai’s inspiring keynote acknowledged global challenges, but painted an exciting picture of Canon’s future.

This message was central to the technologies on display at the Pacifico Yokohama North, the largest multi-purpose convention centre of its kind in Japan. Over the course of three days, around 30,000 visitors from all over the world discovered what our reinvention truly looks like, and how innovation at Canon today places us beyond cameras and printers, securing our place as a technology company for the AI generation. The experience was divided into four areas, but these were conceptual rather than by business group, so visitors could clearly see our broader offerings in the context of how they might be used. It brought a clearer understanding of our place in people’s day to day lives, their businesses and throughout society. Equally, it was possible to see where they sat in Canon’s history, as well as the development environment and technologies in progress.

In this way, we were able to demonstrate how our latest innovations can be found together, for example in clinical and medical settings. One, in particular, stunned visitors who had no prior knowledge of our involvement in life sciences. Canon is contributing to the development of a cell manufacturing technology, which can create autologous iPS cells – that is, a kind of stem cell which is created from a patient's own cells and can be used to replace damaged cells or even reduce the chances of organ rejection in transplants. It’s a technology that has been around for a while, but we have existing and proprietary expertise that can help to create iPS cells which are consistent in quality and at a price that is not restrictive to their use.

The application of Artificial Intelligence image analysis in medical settings was also welcomed as visitors were guided through how it is used in both highly effective and accurate cancer detection and daily patient care. These diagnostic tools form part of our existing portfolio of MRI, CT and ultrasounds. While group companies, Milestone and AXIS apply their respective cameras and software to keep a watchful eye on patients and support nurses in their workload. Together they paint a bigger picture of a company that is laser-focused on health and well-being.

It's not just about owning things and having money… well-being is important.”

Intelligent ways to create a safer world were also much in evidence and even the fun tiny ‘cobots’ that moved through the exhibition space had a serious side, demonstrating capabilities such as behaviour detection. These little cuboid companions can deliver coffee, yes, but they also scan you to check your temperature and alert the emergency services if you appear to be in danger. Their equally small but perfectly formed industrial counterparts were able to undertake tasks such as 3D spatial mapping, identifying, sorting and building with components of a multitude of shapes and sizes. Most impressively, one robot arm even has the kind of precision that can balance six golf balls, one on top of the other. No adhesive, just perfect calculation, and the kind of steady handedness a human might attempt to replicate but could rarely or consistently match. Current manufacturing applications for such techniques are obvious, but crucially this technology opens the door for the development of products of such complexity that they have, so far, been unable to be realised.

From individual safety to the public at large, our ‘Inspection EYE for Infrastructure’ service is already in place across Japan’s expressways, where high-resolution Canon EOS cameras on panoramic mounts record multiple and frequent inspection images of the concrete structures in bridges and tunnels. These are then analysed by a type of deep learning algorithm that detects defects at a level comparable to that of highly skilled inspection engineers. When you know that 4.41 million vehicles use these expressways every day, it becomes clear how essential this work is in daily civic safety.

A robot arm builds a tiny house from Lego.
Three young people stand on a stage in front of a camera, beneath a bank of five screens showing different areas of the stage.
A woman with long dark hair peers through a pair of handheld AR glasses.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Canon EXPO without a satellite (or two!) and our CE-SAT micro satellites were on display alongside their component star tracker and geomagnetic and solar sensors. Since their inception, over ten years ago, these satellites have seen substantial technology upgrades, both in terms of ultra-high sensitivity image capture and sensors. Today they can produce exceptional images from space – even in darkness – and this, again alongside innovations in AI to interpret the data, has some important applications in terms of human safety. Such as evacuation ahead of natural disasters, safe shipping routes and real-time tracking of coastal erosion.

On the subject of monitoring and the use of AI, EXPO also showcased a little known, but critically important application for Canon imaging technology – especially in the light of climate change and increasing labour shortages in farming. Visitors were taken through our involvement in smart agriculture, specifically the ‘growth monitoring system’ called GM-1. Using a combination of cameras and AI-driven software, this system is already in use at sixty rice farms across Japan.

It essentially automates the monitoring of important growth indicators without any contact or risk to the crops. A huge number of images are then fed to the associated software, which measures the colour of leaves, number of stems and plant height, instantly comparing them to ideal characteristics and past data, while continuously accumulating information on every possible variety and condition. It is expected that GM-1 may be used for widespread cultivation management of crops, developing new varieties, and preparing for the risks associated with changing weather patterns.

Returning to the right hand, however, the jewel in our crown at EXPO recently featured in Time Magazine’s list of best inventions of 2023 – our MS-500 camera. It’s the world’s first ultra-high-sensitivity camera equipped with a Single Photon Avalanche Diode (SPAD) sensor. Designed for long distance monitoring in extreme darkness, it can even photograph light not visible to the naked eye. It’s compatibility with broadcast and telephoto lenses also demonstrates just how far we’ve come in our next generation content production offerings, with the SPAD sensor technology sitting neatly alongside our EOS Virtual Reality system, volumetric video and AI tools for media professionals that allow for multi-camera remote shooting and can extract the perfect stills from video content.

All of this, however, is just a drop in the ocean in an exhibited programme of over forty categories of innovation at Canon EXPO 2023 and opportunities to explore literally hundreds of technologies – from well-known to relatively unknown, those established and others fresh out of the R&D lab. The spirit Canon of from 1967 still had its presence felt at the Pacifico Yokohama North this October with the focus on innovation, but Mr Mitarai gave his audience a clear direction of travel, saying “We have been said to be a camera and printer company, but in response to the digital era, we have acquired new businesses and significantly developed our portfolio in anticipation of the accelerated progress of AI.” The EXPO 2023 that followed underlined this message, many times over. In Canon red ink.