In wearables push, Sony preaches collaboration

Partnerships are playing an increasingly important role for the beleaguered manufacturer

Sony's Smartband on a reporter's wrist at IFA Berlin on September 3, 2014

Sony's Smartband on a reporter's wrist at IFA Berlin on September 3, 2014

After pulling out of PCs and fighting a losing battle in smartphones, Sony is staking out wearables as one of its last bastions of consumer computing.

The troubled electronics maker has continued its push into consumer wearables, rolling out new smart glasses and fitness devices, while other Japanese manufacturers are sticking to wearable computers for the workplace.

Sony is preaching cooperation and "co-creation" as watchwords for surviving in the still-nascent wearables market, which is expected to grow more than sixfold to US$12 billion by 2018, according to the organizers of a wearables expo held in Japan this week. Early adopters of these products could benefit from this camaraderie.

"Wearables have a huge potential, through co-creation and collaboration, to create a new industry," Kaz Tajima, senior vice president at Sony Mobile Communications, said at the inaugural Wearable Device Technology Expo in Tokyo. "We should not compete with each other, but we should work together to identify potential markets."

It echoes the strategy being pursued by Samsung, which is also counting on partnerships to tackle both wearables and the smart connected home. But for Sony, it's a break from its traditional go-it-alone approach, and the company is eager to show how it's working with other brands. CEO Kaz Hirai has promoted partnerships as part of his crucial "One Sony" revitalization strategy.

Sony's redesigned SmartWatch 3, for instance, works with GPS apps like GolfShot, which shows golfers how far they are from a hole. At CES last week, Sony opened up the API for its activity tracking app, Lifelog, to third parties, and forged related partnerships with Habit Monster, a motivational game, and Withings' Smart Body Analyzer, a connected scale. Virgin Atlantic staff have also been using SmartWatches to check passenger information and, under a new partnership, are due to adopt SmartWear gadgets to support operational activities.

In another sign that it's opening up its business, Sony has also taken a different approach to product development through crowdfunding some products. It has raised nearly ¥13 million ($111,000) for its Qrio Smart Lock on Japanese crowdfunding site Makuake. That follows the ¥14.5 million, also raised on Makuake, for an e-ink smartwatch called the FES Watch.

The sums are small but a welcome boost for the ailing, 70-year-old company, which broke ground in the early 1980s with the Walkman TPS-L2, a "walking stereo" that played cassette tapes. The Walkman was also a wearable in that it could be worn with a strap or attached to a belt or waistband.

Today, Sony's expanding SmartWear line, including the SmartBand Talk activity wristband, are designed to get users to move away, at least in part, from their phones, and free their hands as well as their eyes.

"We want people to look up when they walk -- looking down all the time isn't a nice view," Tajima said. "With SmartWear we want to extend human capabilities, like extending the brain or part of your body."

A promo video shown at the expo depicted a range of connected devices that Sony sees as part of the move from phones to wearables and IoT (Internet of Things) applications. The promo showed concepts for a SmartBicycle with 360-degree onboard camera views, a "Quad helicopter camera" that would act like a personal drone following users around, an underwater camera for fishing, a life-logging neck camera and a Segway-like SmartTransporter on four wheels.

The concepts could be possible through collaboration, Tajima said after his presentation, adding, "We want to leverage our brand and our core competences in offering consumer wearables, while also working on co-creation with B2B partners."

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