Sony's goal with crowdfunding: user feedback

Sony values user feedback far more than the trivial sums it raises on crowdfunding sites

Sony's MESH sensor platform is on its way toward raking up US$50,000 in backing on Indiegogo.

Sony's MESH sensor platform is on its way toward raking up US$50,000 in backing on Indiegogo.

Crowdfunding site Indiegogo attracts aspiring musicians, film students and tech startups. And a multinational company with billions of dollars in sales: Sony.

The electronics giant aims to raise US$50,000 on crowdfunding site Indiegogo for its MESH project -- a network of toy-like devices that attach to household objects for added functionality.

The company is halfway through its third crowdfunding project, and it looks like it'll meet its goal. But $327,000 is nothing to the company that makes the PlayStation 4 and the iPhone 6's camera, even with all its woes from loss-making businesses.

Sony simply wants a sounding board for ideas from its new innovation unit.

MESH is Sony's third attempt at crowdfunding following its FES e-paper smartwatch and the Qrio smart lock, which have so far garnered a total of about ¥33 million ($277,000) on Japanese crowdfunding site Makuake.

"Fundraising isn't the point here," a Sony spokeswoman said. "Crowdfunding helps us to collect feedback from early adopters and users before products go on the market."

The concepts that landed on Indiegogo and Makuake are the product of Sony's New Business Creation Department, which was established in April last year. Its mission is to come up with ideas that don't fit into traditional product categories.

MESH involves block-like hardware devices called tags that can be wirelessly connected through a simple drag and drop tablet app. Some tags contain an accelerometer that can trigger an email alert when an object moves, while others contain LEDs, buttons or general purpose input-output controllers. They can also be used with Wi-Fi-connected lamps such as the Philips Hue.

MESH is similar to sensor kits such as WunderBar from Berlin-based Relayr, but it represents a new emphasis on hardware collaboration at Sony. At a recent hackathon for future housing, one team suggested a MESH setup in which the accelerometer tag could be attached to a key holder. When a user grabs the keys in the morning, the sensor triggers a Wi-Fi-linked camera, which snaps a photo for a daily archive of clothing choices.

The MESH crowdfunding campaign, which has picked up about $40,000 in pledges, is a chance to communicate with users, said Takehiro Hagiwara, the MESH project leader. He compared it to getting feedback when demoing a prototype version of the tags to DIY fans at Maker Faire in California last year. In one comment, a user suggested sharing the 3D design data from the MESH blocks to open up application possibilities.

The DIY culture of countries such as the U.S. is one factor that made Sony go with Indiegogo for MESH, Hagiwara added. The Makuake pages for the smartwatch and smart lock, each of which exceeded its funding target by over 1,000 percent, aren't geared at tinkerers as much. But they've amassed nearly 2,000 backers and many suggestions such as batteries for the watch that can be replaced easily.

The company's overall crowdfunding strategy is echoed in Sony's attitude toward wearables. Instead of going it alone in the nascent space of smart accessories, it wants to work with other firms. At a wearables expo in Tokyo last month, "co-creation" was the watchword being preached by Kaz Tajima, senior vice president at Sony Mobile Communications.

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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