In 1961, Sony constructed the Research Laboratory and the Sony Bridge in Hodogaya, Yokohama. Under its second director, Shigeo Shima, the Laboratory was renamed the Research Center in October 1969 and merged with the Research Division of the Sony head office. At that time, the number of Sony researchers increased from the initial fifty or so to three-hundred, and the Research Center was functioning as Sony's core R&D unit for basic research.
One day in 1970, a fellow engineer showed Shigeyuki Ochi, an engineer at the Research Center, a magazine and said, "Look at this article!" It was a report submitted by WS Boyle and GE Smith of Bell Laboratories in the United States announcing the development of the CCD in April of that year. A CCD is a semiconductor with a structure similar to an MOS, which stores and transfers electric signals. According to the report, two researchers invented the CCD one day after their supervisor instructed them to "think about a semiconductor with the same functions as magnetic memory." They thought up various product applications for such a device, including use in cameras and displays.
Ochi's initial response to the article was "This CCD has a very simple structure, but looks interesting. Let's ask the other engineers if they can come up with application ideas and see if anyone is interested in developing an application." He then submitted a questionnaire to the Research Center, asserting that "The development of technology is pointless unless the technology meets actual needs." Many engineers responded positively to the questionnaire.
"Well, since I was the one who started it, I might as well keep going," thought Ochi. He added the development of CCD to his list of projects related to the development of MOS devices. This was in December 1970. Depending on the voltage applied, an electric signal is transferred in a CCD and the two ends of the CCD act as the entrance and exit for the signal. Thus, a CCD can be used as a delay unit in signal transmission. Ochi, idly playing with a CCD, noted, "If you input an electric signal at this end, it's transferred and emerges through the other end." Moreover, he discovered that when a CCD is used as a photo-sensor, it converts the received light signals into electric signals. In other words, it performs as an optical signal reader. Thus, a CCD connected to a lens can act as an "electronic eye."
Ochi was delighted by this prospect, saying, "This is a very simple device. If it can be commercialized, we'll be able to make inexpensive cameras." He went on to develop several prototypes, the first of which was a CCD that captured an 8 pixel image. For an 8 pixel image, eight sets of photo detectors and transmitters receive light signals and convert them to electric signals. The more pixels a CCD has, the greater the resolution of the final image. Ochi next succeeded in 1972 to project the letter S with an 8 x 8 or 64 pixel CCD. By this time, Bell Laboratories had given up on commercializing the CCD, and other manufacturers had nearly given up as well. Ohga came to see Ochi's success and, although happy with the result, noticed that the image was very soft and out of focus. Ohga jokingly said to Ochi, "You can barely recognize the five fingers of a hand with this CCD."
As primitive as CCD technology was at this stage, it already had a strong supporter in Iwama, then deputy president. Ochi and his group were still merely playing with the CCD, but Iwama ordered them to, "seriously focus on the CCD and turn their R&D efforts into a usable product." Thereafter, the development of the CCD became a full-time project. Iwama gave the team a specific goal: "We have to produce a camera using CCDs at a price under 50,000 yen within five years. We're not competing against other electronics manufacturers in this field. Our competition is Eastman Kodak." The goal was clear, but the engineers were puzzled. In comparison with conventional tube cameras, it was obvious that a camera incorporating CCDs would be much smaller and easier to carry, while boasting more stable image processing capabilities. But the researchers asked, "Why is our competitor Eastman Kodak instead of electronics manufacturers?" In truth, no one quite understood why Iwama had stated this goal.
Iwama had worked for Sony in the United States from 1971 through 1973. Upon returning to Japan, he became a deputy president of Sony and the director of the Research Center. He had always attended the monthly CCD progress report meetings held at the center, always inquiring on the progress with interest. But there was a reason behind his sudden serious interest in the commercialization of CCDs.
In the 1950s, when Sony introduced the transistor radio, the company boasted that it was the world's number one manufacturer of semiconductors. Iwama was spearheading Sony's R&D efforts at that time. Under Iwama's supervision, Leona Esaki, who later became a Nobel laureate, developed the Esaki Diode. It was at this time that the transistor television was born (see Part I, Chapter 4). When Iwama returned to Japan from his assignment in the United States, Sony's semiconductor development team was stagnating. It had withdrawn from the fiercely competitive race to develop MOS devices for electronic calculators. Iwama had the distinct impression that "Sony's semiconductor team was dead." This was why Iwama pushed Ochi's team. Iwama's aim was to revive Sony's semiconductor development efforts through the CCD. He encouraged them in their efforts saying, "The Research Center must have confidence in itself." Iwama had actually seen the Bell Labs CCD with his own eyes, and he truly believed in the future of CCDs. "The CCD is a perfect vehicle for reviving Sony's semiconductor business. The day will come when CCDs will contribute to Sony's commercial line of products," thought Iwama. The reason for singling out Eastman Kodak as the competition was borne of an ambition to outperform the then prosperous photographic materials industry and to present the single-unit CCD camera and VCR as a "challenge from the electronics industry."
Thus, in November 1973, the engineers who were working on the CCD were transferred from the Atsugi factory to the Research Center, and development of the CCD as an "electronic eye" began in earnest.