Goldstuck on Gadgets

Sony aims to get ultra-smart

April 19th, 2016
“Smart” is more than a buzzword for Sony, which is poised to roll out a dizzying array of new gadgets and formats, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
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It starts with the Eye and the Ear. It is likely to end in the brain and the heart, but perhaps without the capital letters that have been allocated to the other body parts, courtesy of a range of new Sony devices.

The Eye is a tiny continual-capture video camera, the Ear a voice-controlled earpiece for smartphones. They were first demonstrated at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona in February, along with the Xperia projector, which projects interactive displays that turn any flat area into a working surface, and the Agent, a stationery robot that takes voice instructions.

In Tokyo last week, Sony provided a deep dive into the thinking behind these gadgets, which do not yet have a release date, as the company still regards the devices as conceptual, and is evolving their use cases.

For Tomokazu “Kaz” Tajima, SVP, Head of UX Creative Design & Planning at Sony Mobile, it’s all about preparing for the future. And there could have been no better time than the first two weeks of April.

Spring had come to Tokyo, and with it the city’s famed cherry blossom season.

“The cherry blossom is a symbol of spring in Japan but also symbol of starting new things,” he said while introducing the new strategy at Sony Mobile. “Everyone in Japan feels everything starts with the cherry blossom season. In the last two weeks we completed our fiscal year. All our activity was focused on transformation and preparation for the future.

“We have successfully concluded and completed our transformation programme. We have been preparing for the future by streamlining our smartphone portfolio, and put a strong focus on premium added value devices. We are also focusing on new business creation and opportunity. What you saw at MWC was a result of 2015 activity.”

The key to the new technology, he said, was a new philosophy: “communication with intelligence”.

While the years from 2013 to 2015 were dedicated to the highly-regarded Sony Xperia Z series, the coming three years will see the Xperia X, along with a range of “smart products”, build in more intelligence around a “new communication experience”.

Tajima, who was personally involved in the creation of the Xperia brand, explains that it is a combination of the words “experience” and “ia”, which means  “place” in Latin. In short, Xperia is intended to be “the place where experience is generated”.

The four new smart products launched at MWC under the Xperia brand – Ear, Eye, Projector and Agent – each has a specific context in mind, he said.

“Ear is a very tiny earpiece, for completely hands-free communication without looking down at smartphone. It offers a very intuitive and playful communications style.

“Projector is for family communication at home, and is designed to accelerate family communications.

“Eye is a personal content creation for social networking communications: it captures your life.

“Agent is intended to support a person’s communications life in all its aspects. It has a common voice-based natural user interface, and smart support or assistance.”

The latter is in effect a robot butler that serves up information, communication and entertainment needs rather than the physical. It allows other gadgets and appliances to be controlled from a single point, using natural voice instructions. Some might say it is a glorified voice assistant and remote control, but Sony believes it will keep evolving as more intelligence is built in.

The Agent in particular is likely to be hard sell, as Sony looks for use cases that will persuade households to invest in yet another gadget that is designed to control or access the gadgets that are already around. However, even if it doesn’t sell in large numbers, it serves a similar purpose as other brands’ high-end gadgets that are affordable only by the wealthy: it is proof of technology leadership, which creates greater desirability for the more affordable devices from the same brands.

“With the intelligence and connectivity technology we have, we believe we can find a new business field beyond the smartphone,” says Tajima. “The smartphone field is very busy and competitive. We want to find new fields, and the smart products are just the beginning.”

Asked whether the projector and other new smart technologies would be built into the Xperia X series, Tajima warned against pursuing more compact devices for their own sake, but did hold out hope.

“When miniaturisation is optimised towards smartphones, we will have the possibility of building projection technology into smartphones. But if we sacrifice form factor and size, we don’t think people will enjoy the experience.

“The smartphone is defined by a graphic user interface (GUI), and the size of the interface is almost defining the size of the phone. If we have a breakthrough in the GUI, for example via the projector, we will have the chance to change the form factor of smartphones. So we will try the projector interface through this product once we have that kind of breakthrough.”

That could well mean a time where your smartphone is only an interface, and an interface can be displayed on or transmitted to any device or surface. Think of it as a phone whithout a handset. If that sounds absurd, you may just need a new kind of Ear to hear the future coming.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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