Dennō Coil

Mitsuo Iso

Dennō Coil (literally ‘Electric Brain Coil’) is a Japanese anime television series depicting a near future where semi-immersive augmented reality (AR) technology has just begun to enter the mainstream. The series takes place in the fictional city of Daikoku, a hotbed of AR development with an emerging city-wide virtual infrastructure.

It follows a group of children as they use AR glasses to unravel the mysteries of the half real, half Internet city, using a variety of illegal software tools, techniques, and virtual pets to manipulate the digital landscape. The show was in development for over a decade, and was the directorial debut of Japanese animator Mitsuo Iso. It premiered on NHK Educational TV in 2007.

In 2026, eleven years after the introduction of internet-connected augmented reality eyeglasses and visors, Yūko Okonogi moves with her family to the city of Daikoku, the technological center of the emerging half-virtual world. Yūko joins her grandmother’s “investigation agency” made up of children equipped with virtual tools and metatags. As their research turns up mounting evidence of children who have been whisked away to the mysterious ‘other side’ of reality, they find themselves entangled in a conspiracy to cover up the dangerous true nature and history of the new technology. ‘Dennō’ is the word used in the series to differentiate between virtual and real, e.g. ‘dennō cat.’ The title of the show itself refers to the dangerous phenomenon of the separation of one’s digital self from the physical body. The children access the virtual world through Internet-connected visors called dennō eyeglasses. This allows them to see virtual reality superimposed on objective reality. To visually confirm something as virtual, the children often lift their glasses from their eyes. The visors also work in conjunction with futuristic ear monitors placed behind the ear, which allow the wearer to hear sounds from the virtual environment.

Interaction with the virtual world is handled in a similar fashion to contemporary video games. Software tools are visually represented as tactile tools (e.g. a fishing rod) which occupy 3D virtual space and must be manipulated by hand. Metatags, which can be used to damage virtual objects or enhance them with certain properties, are visually represented as ‘o-fuda’ (‘paper talismans’). Virtual objects such as pets cannot be recalled or reset; when a pet runs away, it must be chased and caught in 3D space. Virtual objects and pets are also susceptible to a form of ‘death’ by data corruption or deletion. For a virtual object or pet to be deleted from cyberspace, it can be attacked by a virtual weapon, such as those used by Searchmaton (the maintenance & antivirus bot of Daikoku). While users of dennō eyeglasses cannot be physically harmed by virtual weapons, their costly personal data and virtual possessions can be damaged.

Searchmaton is constantly on the lookout for illegal objects and damaged space, which includes corrupted or obsolete space, computer viruses, and the pets and tools that the protagonists own. The virtual side of Daikoku is shown as an emerging space, requiring constant maintenance. In the first episode, the virtual dog Densuke falls into an obsolete virtual space outside of the spatial reality of Daikoku. Due to a version mismatch between the dog and the space, Densuke finds himself glitching and destabilizing in the environment. Eventually Searchmaton reformats the obsolete space. It is also shown that the virtual space represented in Daikoku is tied to the city’s electronic infrastructure. In one scene, Fumie Hashimoto uses a metatag to control a traffic light.

The underground virtual currency of Daikoku is known as meta, which is equivalent to the Japanese yen, and is traded in the form of ‘metabugs.’ The market value of a metabug can change according to its supply and demand. It is explained that a metabug represents a special kind of software bug, and from their unique properties they can be refined into tools or metatags by skilled craftsmen. Metabugs, which are especially abundant in the city of Daikoku, can only be unearthed in damaged or corrupted spaces. Metabugs are also a target of deletion for Searchmaton.

Despite being a computer environment, the virtual side of Dennō Coil has a tangible and sometimes organic design, with much of the interaction requiring physical effort in 3D space. In order to hack into a corrupted virtual space in Daikoku, Fumie Hashimoto handles a software spray can loaded with so-called ‘black bug spray.’ A virus on the run from Searchmaton leaves behind a (virtually) tangible, evaporating black trail of raw ‘dennō substance.’ The virtual dog Densuke uses his nose to follow the trail. However, dennō eyeglasses do not grant the user the ability to ‘feel’ the virtual world. Therefore using software tools and playing with virtual pets requires some degree of active make-believe from the user.

A special type of rogue virtual organism known as ‘illegals’ populate the damaged and obsolete spaces of Daikoku City. The protagonists sometimes hunt special forms of illegals in the hope of collecting valuable metabugs. Illegals, originating from ‘the other side,’ sometimes become lost and isolated in the city and express a desire to return to their ‘homeland.’ Some humanoid illegals known as ‘Nulls’ can whisk people away to ‘the other side’ by inducing ‘dennō coil’—a comatose state where the victim is trapped in VR.

In order to spatially synchronize virtual space and real space, users of internet-connected dennō eyeglasses constantly upload the status of physical space to the virtual infrastructure. In the fifth episode, the protagonists encounter a sparsely visited junkyard of buses on the fringes of wireless internet connectivity. Due to obsolete AR data, the buses are depicted by dennō eyeglasses as being in far better condition than they actually are. The characters sometimes exploit the discrepancies of desynchronization when dealing with metabugs and illegals.

The AR world is filled with mysteries of and ghostly tales about children losing their soul to ‘the other side,’ a supposed ghostly realm of VR hidden in the AR environment. The protagonists continually gain a clearer picture of the true nature of the glasses and cyberspace throughout the series. It is eventually revealed that the glasses form a two-way brain-computer interface known as ‘Imago,’ first used in experimental medical treatments. However there are substantial health risks in prolonged use of the interface, and the interface itself presents the possibility of a coma or brain death through the ‘dennō coil’ phenomenon. At the same time, an experiment gone awry gave birth to Michiko, a digital life form that assumed control of Coil Domain—referred to in rumors as ‘the other side.’ Due to their inability to erase Coil Domain, Megamass (a conglomerate which primarily makes AR glasses) opted to instead create a new layer of augmented reality space on top of Coil Domain, where the influence of Michiko and Imago was lessened in order to minimize the occurrence of dennō coil. Much information regarding Coil Domain, Imago, Michiko and dennō coil has been aggressively covered up by the company.

The virtual side of Daikoku is heavily regulated and restricted by the Searchmaton software, therefore the children of ‘Dennō Coil’ are circumventing those regulations through their mischievous adventures and their trade of ‘illegal’ software tools and pets. Fumie Hashimoto describes Searchmaton as a powerful piece of software that, despite its blunt strength, is easily fooled due to its predictable behavior and unbalanced priorities. She also laments how it shows no leeway by destroying even the most harmless of virtual toys and pets. Beginning with episode six, the show often highlights the lack of nuance and the divide of understanding between the overprotective adult administrators and the child protagonists regarding the regulation of the emerging digital frontier.

According to the series director, Mitsuo Iso, a major theme in ‘Dennō Coil’ is the distance between the characters, such as Yūko’s inability to feel the fur of her own virtual pet, in addition to all the relational tensions and divides of understanding between the characters in the series. In Iso’s translated words, it conveys how ‘there will always be a distance between people, and even between things that seem within ones’ reach. And that one must walk down a long, thin and winding road before they reach one’s heart. There are tons of obstacles. It’s in fact like the roads in towns of old.’

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