TOKYO -- In a classic example of their skill at "creative copying," the big Japanese electric goods manufacturers have taken an obscure American theory of computer logic and turned it into a hugely successful new line of consumer products.
The hot new idea in consumer electronics here is a broad range of products advertised as "fuzzy." Giant producers like Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Sharp Corp., Sanyo Electric Co., Sony Corp. and Mitsubishi Electric Corp. are breaking sales records with fuzzy video cameras, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, TV sets, toasters, etc.
These appliances, programmed with so-called "fuzzy logic," are designed to react to changing conditions much as people do. A fuzzy TV set on the market here, for example, automatically increases its brightness as the room grows darker and increases the volume when the viewer moves farther from the set.
At next month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Japan's fuzzy products will be on display for the American market. The first wave will include fuzzy logic videocameras. These are designed to know if you move your arm while shooting and compensate for it to produce an unblurred picture. TVs, microwave ovens and other fuzzy goods will find their way to the United States soon.
The idea of a TV set that is fuzzy may sound strange to Americans. But it was an American scholar, Lofti A. Zadeh of the University of California at Berkeley, who founded the branch of computer science known as fuzzy logic, based on the algebraic concept of "fuzzy sets."
Zadeh published the seminal paper on fuzzy logic in 1965 in the academic journal "Information and Control." He suggested that computers could be programmed to handle not only precise multi-digit numbers but also fuzzier concepts such as "nearly" and "a little more than."
In America and Europe, this idea became the arcane province of computer theorists working in the area of programming design known as "artificial intelligence."
The Japanese, though, put the concept to work on down-to-earth applications. Fuzzy logic has been used here to make banks of elevators respond efficiently to changing traffic flows and to regulate the arrival and departure of subway trains. About five years ago, the electronics firms began working on consumer applications.
"Dr. Zadeh is really the person who originated the fuzzy logic concept," said Kiyoshi Fukushima, manager of Sanyo Electric Co.'s Control and Systems Research Center.
"Of course," Fukushima added, "we knew of his journal article.
"Then when we were looking for a way to design a video camera that could adjust itself to imprecise conditions, it rang a bell in the head of one of our engineers that fuzzy logic might help.
"Now we recognize that we can use this software technology and build it into our hardware to produce a much higher value-added product."
The history of fuzzy -- an American technical concept that Japanese firms have turned into a consumer product -- has raised fears here that fuzzy will be the next area of U.S.-Japan patent squabbles.
Japanese manufacturers filed more than 100 patent applications here last year for new applications of the basic fuzzy theory.
The Japanese trade press has also expressed concern that the Pentagon might want to assert some kind of control over the technology.
But those fears seem remote from the jam-packed appliance floors of the downtown Tokyo electronics stores, where fuzzy appliances of all types have spawned a boom year for the big electronics manufacturers.
With manufacturers stepping up their advertising now, when most Japanese workers are just receiving their year-end bonuses, it seems like half the ads on TV include somebody singing or shouting the words "fahdjee da!" -- "it's fuzzy!"
In Japan today, you can buy a fuzzy dishwasher that senses how many dishes are loaded and what kind of dirt they have and adjusts the soap, water and wash time accordingly; a fuzzy toaster that adjusts the heat and toasting time depending on the type of bread it senses and the user's previous preferences; a fuzzy air conditioner that senses the shape and size of the room, checks the inside and outside temperature and humidity and constantly switches on and off to achieve the proper cooling with the greatest energy efficiency; a fuzzy vacuum cleaner that knows when it has moved from carpet to bare floor and changes power accordingly.
Software engineers here have a perfectly good Japanese word for the concept of fuzzy reasoning.
But that word, "aimai," meaning "ambiguous," was deemed unappealing for a consumer product.
Looking around for an alternative, the marketing experts decided to use the English word fuzzy.
"I know what 'fuzzy' means in English," said Fukushima, the Sanyo research manager. "It's what happens when you take off your glasses, isn't it?" Fukushima added. "But 'fuzzy' has a warm sound to the Japanese. The way we pronounce it, it sounds like two other English words we like very much -- fancy, pronounced 'fahnshee' and fantasy, pronounced 'fahntahshee.' "
Now that they are making plans to bring their top-selling fuzzy products to the huge U.S. market, the Japanese manufacturers are looking around for names that will appeal to Americans.
Sanyo, which is introducing a fuzzy video camera, has decided to keep the term, with a slight addition.
In America, the Sanyo camera will be called a fuzzy logic camera.
The device is programmed to make sure that any person in the viewfinder is always in focus, even if he or she is not at the center of the frame.
Similarly, Sharp's newest microwave oven will be called the "Fuzzy Oven Range" in the United States.
But Matsushita has changed terminology for U.S. sale of its new Panasonic video camera. The camera has a special button to film rapidly moving objects without blur.
In Japan, the button is labeled "Fuzzy Gyro." For the U.S. market, the same button will be called "Digital Image Stabilizer."
Can fuzzy by any other name sell as sweet in the West as it does here? "Some of the fuzzy concepts may be valid in the U.S.," said John Stern, of the American Electronics Association's Tokyo office.
"The idea of better energy efficiency, or more precise heating and cooling, can be successful in the American market," Stern added. "But I don't think most Americans want a vacuum cleaner that talks to you and says, 'Hey, I sense that my dust bag will be full before we finish this room.' "