Sony Introduces Robot Toy as Recovery Takes Root

Hi, this is Pavel, a technology reporter in Tokyo. Earlier this month, Sony unveiled an unusual new product —a robotic toy.

At first glance, Toio, which stands for "toy" and "I/O," looks like an old-fashioned video game console, complete with cartridges and wired controllers. Instead of a virtual character, you control two small white cubes on a desk or table. Equipped with motors, optical and vibration sensors, the little blocks are surprisingly agile and autonomous. The magic is in the play mat printed with invisible patterns that allow the bots to precisely locate themselves in space. When working together they can generate fairly complex movements: a grasping claw, wiggling worm and even a biped figure. The hardware will set you back about $180, not including the games.

The gadget sparked a debate in the Tokyo newsroom. Some saw it as another example of Sony hubris, a company slapping its name on another niche product with limited potential. Aren't CEO Kazuo Hirai and his lieutenants focused on video games, movies and camera components? Is a toy really something the company should be pursuing right now?

I took another view, that of a company figuring out how to capitalize on its long tail of engineering talent. You see, Toio isn't a mainstream Sony product, which means it doesn't belong to any one of its group companies. It's the latest graduate of the company's Seed Acceleration Program, an internal venture-capital competition under Hirai's direct supervision. The program, introduced in 2014, has already released a handful of products including an e-paper fashion watch, a universal remote control and IOT set for beginner tinkerers.

Two Sony engineers thought up Toio five years ago as a pet project, but development ground to a halt after the first prototype in 2013, when they judged the technology wasn't ready. It was revived under the accelerator program and was turned into a product in just a year, an impressive turnaround for any hardware company, let alone a behemoth like Sony.

Perhaps the geek in me overestimates the appeal of Toio. But whether the gadget hits the mark or not, it's a step in the right direction. Those who have followed Sony's decade-long decline might dismiss the quirky product as another doomed effort by a once-great electronics brand.

But now the company has proven that it can turn itself around, I think it's time we forgive Sony its sins and turn a more sympathetic eye to its newest experiments. 

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