Creating new life styles together with users:
a device with greater freedom of use
than a smartphone.
Future Lab Program
Sony's "Future Lab Program" is an effort to open up some portions of technology development and R&D activities, allowing average consumers to provide feedback and add value to Sony products. The program, an offshoot of Sony's main R&D organization, will give the public access to prototype models of certain products that are still under development, and solicit feedback and suggestions. In this way, the company hopes to strengthen its R&D capabilities and communicate to the public a clearer vision of the future that Sony is helping to create. By fostering a deeper relationship with consumers, the company aims to cultivate a new generation of Sony aficionados.
Sharing prototypes with users to stimulate innovation
"Traditionally, new product development efforts were shrouded in secrecy, and information on the process was restricted to small groups of R&D workers. In our case, the objective is to develop new products that reflect Sony's reputation for quality and functionality. Furthermore, as experts in technology, we are eager to explore new technologies for their own sake. Often, however, these development efforts wander off track, due to uncertainty about whether a particular technology is something that consumers really want, or whether we are moving in the right direction with the applications."
The above comments come from Naoya Okamoto, general manager of Sony's solution development department. Mr. Okamoto, who was involved in the R&D efforts that led to many groundbreaking Sony products, understands that today, it is essential to get feedback from consumers on prototype items, even before a decision has been made on whether or not to bring a new product to market.
During the early phases of development, particularly when a product concept is truly innovative, there will often be sharp disagreement on the pros and cons of a new product. For example, almost everyone would agree that higher video resolution or better audio quality are "good ideas." But ideas that sound good to everyone are usually not very innovative; it is unlikely that they will lead to the sort of market-changing products that alter consumer lifestyles. When a truly innovative idea comes along, it is generally greeted with skepticism. Someone will always shake their head and say: "are you sure we really need that?"
"Initial reactions to a truly innovative concept are generally negative. Typically, eight out of ten people will oppose the idea, at first. However, there will usually be a few true believers, who firmly insist that 'there is definitely some merit to this idea.' As they press ahead with development efforts, they will gradually win people over. At this point, it is critical to present the basic concept to consumers, and get their feedback. If they agree with the concept, or discover possibilities that had not even occurred to us as product developers, it gives the R&D process a tremendous boost. On the other hand, if consumers disagree with the concept, or think the technology falls well short of their needs, their feedback can convince developers to move in a certain direction."
concept "N", freeing eyes, ears and hands from smartphones
The Future Lab Program has already given birth to a prototype audio system called "N," which transmits music or audio information to users without the use of headphones or ear buds. This item can now be used by consumers who want to experience a new dimension in Sony-style entertainment.
"The original concept behind "N" was to develop a way for people to access their "handheld" devices while leaving their hands, their eyes, and even their ears unobstructed. Nowadays, many people view their smartphones as an indispensable part of daily life. However, while users may think they are already convenient and functional, from an engineer's standpoint there is still plenty of room for improvement in the future. For one thing, they can be very restrictive. In order to use a smartphone, you need to look directly at the screen. To perform functions, you need to use your hands. To listen to music, you need to put on earphones, making it difficult to hear what is going on around you. Personally, I think that these obstructions can be eliminated, allowing people to use devices with more freedom. "N" represents our effort to start removing the obstructions once and for all."
When a young engineer at Sony first floated the "N" concept - a wearable device shaped like a sports neckband - the majority of people who heard the idea were unconvinced. Indeed, Mr. Okamoto was one of the early skeptics. After he had a chance to experience "wearable music," however, he began to see the possibilities.
"I took my four-year-old kid to the park one day while trying out a prototype version of the "N," and a "Carpenters" song came on. The "N" doesn't block any of the sound from your surroundings, so I could hear all the normal sounds of kids playing in the park, but at the same time the music was swelling around me like the soundtrack of a movie. Normally, it would have just seemed like a typical weekend, strolling in the park with my child. But at that instant - with music and real life melding in a single tableau - I was overwhelmed with a feeling of nostalgia. I recall thinking: ‘Oh! will I be able to remember this precious moment ten years from now?’ (laughter)." The experience of listening to music with "N" while riding a bicycle on a familiar path left a similar impression. There is something uniquely enjoyable, as you experience familiar places in a new and refreshing way, which you can only appreciate if you try the product for yourself. This is what the Future Lab Program is all about: letting consumers try out Sony technology in real-life situations, and using their experiences and discoveries as feedback for further development."
Working together with users
to create new lifestyles
The program has adopted an open-minded approach that does not try to anticipate what the user will do with a device. Everyone can follow their own inclinations, and discover new things about how the product can be used. No doubt, someone will discover a use or application for one of Sony's products that the engineers never anticipated.
"When it comes to the job of engineering products, engineers can take pride in their expertise. But when it comes to discovering the capabilities of a new technology, we need to work together with consumers if we want to make real progress. By collecting feedback from users, we can find ways to improve technology, and find the inspiration to make new discoveries and bigger innovations. As engineers, our role is to make technological innovations that support future capabilities and lifestyles. That's what Sony is all about. However, the real test of a technology lies in whether it can enrich the lives of individuals, appeal to some emotional need, or in some way alter and enhance the lifestyle of Sony customers. This is the basis of Sony's philosophy, and the mission of Sony's R&D activities."