Sharing new value and
forging a new future with users
Future Lab Program aims to co-create new lifestyles and user value with users for the future. By releasing developing Concept Prototypes to the public and enabling direct communication with society, the R&D project links Sony with users to design the lifestyles and values of the future through new, technology-driven approaches. To learn more about the communication design that got Future Lab Program moving in the right direction, we talked with project members from the Solution Development Department and a member of the design team.
Sony R&D Platform Solution
Sony R&D Platform Solution
Sony Creative Center
Drawing back the curtain on the R&D process
— Why did Sony start up Future Lab Program—and how did design get involved in the launch?
Okamoto: People tend to see research and development as a kind of top-secret, off-limits area, but things are starting to change: in an effort to incorporate as much user feedback as possible, some companies are sharing their technologies fairly early on in the development process. We at Sony wanted to hear what users had to say about the value of the products we’re developing as we work to create new lifestyles for the future—and that motivation led us to launch Future Lab Program, an initiative that directs the focus toward joining forces with users in designing the future we’re about to step into.
What we had to figure out was how we could get the ideas we were hatching—concepts that were still in development—across to users. When you get into releasing concepts that are still in development, the key isn’t the actual prototype itself. You need to concentrate on conveying the concept, making sure that the target audience understands exactly what you’re going for; otherwise, you won’t get the kind of feedback you really need. It all comes down to communication, really. That’s why we decided to bring a design team on board and get help finding the best possible way to communicate with users.
Kanada: Building a new communication framework on an R&D foundation meant that we had to go right to the source: the research and development that have always been so crucial to our identity, giving us unique resources to blaze exciting paths and reflecting what the company does. We knew that we had to start by connecting with users up-front on a no-frills, essential wavelength—instead of embellishing our R&D story and making it seem like something it’s not, the key was to come out with an open approach that’d welcome users directly into real-life research and development.
Ikeda: We wanted the design team to be active at a deeper level, too, not just on the visual side of things. We were always discussing things with designers as the program moved along.
Kanada: “Lab” (Laboratory) is one of those words that have such a broad range of uses. The connotation we were going for was a professional, corporate R&D setting. We wanted to distill the whole essence of that authentic R&D experience—tossing ideas back and forth, tweaking things through trial and error, and always seeking out new angles on concepts—into our communication design.
The Future Lab Program logo:
A crystallization of everything that shapes the project’s identity
— What’s the story behind the distinctive Future Lab Program logo?
Kanada: For us on the design team, the logo was an opportunity to project our vision of the future and capture the core message of creating the world of tomorrow with a community of users who connect with the idea. What we eventually came up with was a design that framed the “future” ahead with an “F” (Future) and an “L” (Lab), leaving a square area of blank space in the center—a visual “canvas” element where concepts can take shape.
Okamoto: When I saw the logo, the whole idea behind Future Lab Program really hit home. The space in the middle is the pivotal piece—if there were something in there already filling it up, it’d probably be hard to convey any sense of openness or the idea of inviting users into a co-creative environment.
Another big part of the logo is the “framing” idea, which echoes the Sony development process of defining objectives first, laying out a clear scope, and then doing whatever it takes to see the project through. The passport-sized video camera is a perfect example of that basic mindset: once Sony developers decided to make one, they took it upon themselves to create all the technologies they needed to pull it off. We don’t do something because we think we could probably make it work—we do it because we have to. That strain of Sony DNA, that relentless pursuit of a clear vision, runs through the logo. I was amazed at how deeply the visual tied into what we’re all about.
Ikeda: The letter inside the logo is like a signature for each individual project. The project leader writes a letter by hand, giving the logo a unique identity for the project to go by as it makes its way into the world. The handwritten letter sits inside the angular frame edging the logo, providing a fluid, dynamic counterpart—not only does it lend the design a cool sense of balance, but it also gives the developers’ personalities and passion a unique aesthetic showcase.
Kanada: The process of designing a logo doesn’t normally involve people from outside the design team, so the logo is really a microcosm of the entire Future Lab Program: a collaborative effort that brings a diverse mix of people together in creating a final product.
Ikeda: The logo also played a big role in building a common consensus on the inside. It really helped get the team members on the same page and foster a shared awareness of Future Lab Program as a whole, I think. Watch the concept video, and you’ll see how that unity paid off: the prototype in the video came straight from the R&D facility on the day of the shoot. I don’t think we would’ve been able to do that without having everyone—from the designers to the developers—in complete sync.
part of evolving concept narratives
— One of the biggest goals of the program is facilitating direct communication with users. How are you working to make that happen?
Okamoto: We exhibited our first Concept Prototype, “N,” at the SXSW (South by Southwest) Interactive Festival in the United States. The event gave developers the chance to talk face to face with real, everyday users, gather practical feedback, and feel out potential issues to address. It was a really valuable experience.
Kanada: As we focused on sparking opportunities for communication, we designed a round table that’d make a great piece for displaying sketches, prototypes, and more—and catch people’s eyes and imaginations, too. The idea was to lay out the pieces that normally go into the “closed” trial-and-error process and have the table symbolize a place where people would sit down and create the future together, a spatial cue for the kind of collaborative activity Future Lab Program is going to encourage. A simple showcase to “decorate” with prototypes would’ve been easy enough to design—but it would’ve completely missed the whole point of the program. We wanted to provide an inviting environment where observers could see the actual prototypes from an actual developer’s perspective, evoking a sense of immediacy that makes it feel like animated discussions could get going at any moment.
Ikeda: After the “N” came the “T,” the next wave in an ongoing stream of new prototypes from all across the spectrum, so we’re still working with designers on ways to cull user feedback through exhibit spaces and other frameworks. With every new prototype comes a whole new set of different qualities, which shape the optimal modes of communication in unique ways. We’ll need to keep making all those variables part of our design approaches.
Okamoto: The “N” prototype centers on the idea of experiencing and enjoying everyday life like never before, placing the emphasis on audio: it gives users the ability to listen to music and receive audio-based information without having to put anything in their ears. “T,” meanwhile, is a technology that transforms a tabletop into an interactive space—and, rather than tell people what “T” is for, we want to work with users on how the technology can make a practical impact. “N” and “T” are obviously different in terms of experience and basic vision, but that divergence highlights another one of Future Lab Program’s biggest assets: diversity.
— What does the future hold for collaboration between R&D and design?
Okamoto: The central mission of R&D activity is to create something that the world has never seen. To go after innovation and stimulate interest, we have to build new relationships that’ll pave the way for sharing concepts with users and working together to turn ideas into reality. Whether or not the concepts really resonate with users and open the doors to communication, though, depends on design.
Future Lab Program might just be getting started, but I’m already excited about how the tighter connections between design, R&D, and engineering—and direct relationships with users, of course—are going to drive the innovations of tomorrow.