Sony Is Getting Its Mojo Back

Hi, this is Yuji  in Tokyo. I just got back from a press event where Sony unveiled the new aibo, an upgraded version of the robotic dog sold until 2006. Much has happened since then. Once a shining example of Japanese prowess in combining technology to create must-have gadgets, Sony went into a slump after branching out into too many businesses and failing to become a major smartphone manufacturer. Now, after five-plus years of tough restructuring that slashed its workforce and multiple product lines, there’s mounting evidence that a revival has taken root. Yesterday, Sony reported a blow-out quarter and said it was on track to post its highest-ever annual operating profit. Its share price has more than doubled in the past three years.

On Wednesday, Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai, —clad in sneakers and dark jeans; not his usual attire, especially in Japan— beamed as he bounced across the stage with Sony’s new pet toy. He sounded confident —a big difference from the beginning of his tenure, when he spoke about cutting jobs, selling businesses and keeping Sony's brand name alive. At the time, investors including Daniel Loeb were calling for a breakup of the company, while alleged North Korean hackers embarrassed executives at Sony’s film unit by releasing internal emails.

I have to admit: after years of false starts and the emergence of tech titans such as Apple, Google and Amazon, it’s still hard to see Sony reaching similar levels of dominance (or profitability). Still, Sony is trying.

Back in August, we reported that the maker of Walkmans and Handycams set up a new internal accelerator program, giving engineers and ambitious employees the chance to invent new products. Among the gadgets: the Aromastic, a digital aroma dispensing device, and wena, chip-embedded wrist straps that attach to any watch, giving them smart capabilities such as digital payments and tracking.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I went to Sony’s Atsugi Technology Center, a research campus located an hour outside Tokyo to learn more about a new class of sensors that can detect people and objects by calculating how long it takes for light to reflect off surfaces. Sony is already a top supplier of image chips for Apple and other smartphone makers, but these new time-of-flight sensors are going to find their way into augmented-reality devices, self-driving cars, drones, gaming consoles and industrial equipment, as well as factory and warehouse robots. So even without consumer gadgets, Sony is working to build next-generation components with a lot of potential to become a pillar of its business. 

So what’s next? Could Sony be working on cars? Last week, it quietly sent a press release on the “New Concept Cart,” a three-person vehicle that uses state-of-the-art  sensors to detect its environment, making it easier for passengers and remote operators to control the transporter. Given all of this, it’s probably a good idea to keep an eye on Sony. 

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