Sony at 60: Developing for the future

When Sony introduced what was the world's smallest transistor radio in 1957, it advertised it as "pocketable" but there was a problem -- it didn't actually fit into a shirt pocket. The solution was to issue salesmen shirts with slightly larger pockets.

The drive to miniaturize has been a constant theme through most of Sony's history, much of it driven by a focus on research and development. From the early transistor radios through the Walkman, the world's first portable stereo, to new digital cameras and pocket-size camcorders, making things more compact remains important for Sony today.

As the company marks its 60th anniversary on May 7, being small isn't quite as unique as it used to be. So while Sony continues to spend time on shrinking products, it's also focusing on a range of other technologies to set its wares apart from those of competitors.

Here's a selection of five technologies that could prove key to Sony's future.

The Cell Processor

Perhaps one of the most exciting new technologies coming from Sony is the Cell chip. Developed with IBM and Toshiba at a cost of billions of dollars, the chip combines 8 processing cores with a main 64-bit processor and is expected to be one of the most powerful processors ever developed. It's already attracted lots of attention for its place at the heart of the upcoming PlayStation 3 console but Sony has much greater plans for the chip.

Sony has established a group that is tasked with developing Cell-based products and applications other than PlayStation 3.

The chip's video processing power could make it the heart of a new generation of high-definition (HD) home entertainment devices such as televisions, video players and recorders. Sony already has its eye on an interconnected world of HD devices, from TVs and Blu-ray Disc players to HDV-based home camcorders and video editing workstations so the Cell is likely to get use well beyond the world of gaming.

Image Sensors

At the core of every digital video or digital still camera sits a sensor that converts light into the electric impulses that are the basis of digital photography. Sony has been a leading manufacturer of such sensors for some years and its latest work is paving the way for a new breed of camera that could be on the market by next year.

The sensors are capable or photographing high-definition video at 60 frames per second or 300 frames per second at a lower resolution. At present such fast frame rates are only available on very expensive specialist cameras but new CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) sensors, which were unveiled at a conference in the U.S. earlier this year, are heading to consumer cameras.

"You can see a world you can't see with your eyes," said Yasuhiro Ueda, general manager of Sony's Image Sensor Division in a recent interview.

The sensors might make capturing that perfect shot easier. Because of their speed users will be able to take a series of up to 8 images in an eighth of a second and then choose the best one or grab a better image from a video. Current sensors aren't fast enough to allow grabbing of good quality images from video, according to Sony.

Felica

When millions of commuters in cities such as Tokyo and Hong Kong ride the train each day they probably do so with little knowledge of a Sony technology called Felica.

The noncontact smart card system is the base for commuter rail passes in both cities and is fast taking off in Japan for a number of other applications. The Edy e-money system, which allows consumers to make purchases by holding a card over a sensor, can already be found in thousands of Japan's ubiquitous convenience stores and the system is spreading fast.

Felica has been built into millions of cell phones and now NTT DoCoMo, the leading cellular carrier in Japan, is pushing a system which enables its subscribers to make credit card purchases using Felica-enabled phones rather than plastic cards.

Liquid Crystal Displays

Sony's tie-up with South Korean rival Samsung Electronics to make big screen LCD panels for televisions may grab all the headlines but Sony has for years been making small-size LCD panels for products such as cell phones and digital still cameras.

In such applications resolution and brightness are key. The company has pushed its 2.2-inch displays, of the type used on cameras, to VGA (640 pixels by 480 pixels) resolution and is also tackling brightness with a type of display called a transreflective. Such panels mix a backlight with ambient light from the surroundings so that they appear bright even when used outdoors in sunny weather, said Maki Sato, a general manager in Sony's mobile products display division.

About 40 percent of digital still cameras sold worldwide have Sony LCD panels and the figure is higher for camcorders, said Sato. Sony has just started targeting the mobile phone display market.

Robotics and artificial intelligence

Aibo may have been a failure as a commercial product -- the cyber mutt was recently put down as part of Sony's restructuring -- but it served to push development on a number of advanced technologies.

Perhaps most obviously these include real-time processing and control of the robot's motor and servo-system for movement. While a task such as walking may seem simple to us it's actually an incredibly difficult thing to reproduce with a machine because of the large number of inputs from the surrounding environment that need to be processed to keep us balanced, moving forward and away from other pedestrians.

While Aibo only ever managed a very robotic-style of movement the results of this research can be seen in Sony's more-advanced Qrio robot. The humanoid robot can run -- something that's much more difficult than walking not just because of the speed but because there are points with each step at which both feet leave the ground.

Beyond mechanical technology Aibo also provided a base for research into artificial intelligence. Engineers worked on algorithms that would have the robot's cyber-brain constantly looking for new and more challenging tasks and also learning when it was worth giving up on a task that obviously was going nowhere.

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service

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