The Japanese company is making more strides in R&D than ever by playing to its strengths, showing off forward-thinking tech
It used to be one of the most baffling cases of the tech world for many, many years: a company with amazing engineers, decades of technical know-how, a knack for innovative products and impressive brand loyalty that just couldn’t get its different divisions — each one commercially successful in its own right — to combine their strengths into unique, competitive advantages. That company was Sony. One would never have guessed as much, though, based on what was shown during its Technology Day that yours truly recently attended. In fact, one cannot help but marvel now at the way Sony can bring together the work of people specializing in totally different fields to create forward-thinking, almost futuristic tech.
The whole presentation — along with a Q&Α — lasted for less than 2 hours. That proved to be plenty of time, though, for Sony to prove that its R&D vision and scope go well beyond the mass market products it’s known for. The company started off with what it does best: screens and movie production. Its Crystal LED displays for consumers are way, way off — manufacturing issues mean that it would be insanely expensive to get a Crystal LED TV in living room size right now — but Sony is building whole “walls” of high-resolution screens using this tech in order to offer virtual backdrops: scenes can be shot in front of these walls (which can display everything and anything a director would ever need), especially with Sony’s new Venice 2 cameras, and edited to produce material that’s close to being shot on-location. Sony’s Hollywood studio collaborated with Sony’s display division in order to ensure that this tool can be used as productively as possible.
The company then showed off its newest electronic performance tracking system, which “captures the movements of players and the match ball from live video feeds taken by dedicated tracking cameras, collecting skeletal data in real-time and with millimeter accuracy”. That data can then be extensively processed so all sorts of useful information can be stored and manipulated at a later date. Sony’s advanced cameras can capture, for instance, the signature, characteristic movement set of a football or tennis player and then e.g. apply that data to virtual actors in the entertainment business. The Japanese are still exploring the possibilities of that one.
Much more interesting to us consumers were Sony’s next two demonstrations. One revolved around an advanced virtual reality headset, which offers an image of 4K resolution to either eye for a complete 8K image of displayed content. The miniature screens are OLED, of course, offering low latency and enough brightness for a variety of different applications, from industrial design or medical operations in VR to real-time VR meetings and personal entertainment. We obviously do not expect PlayStation VR 2, which is officially in development and coming in 2022, to sport such advanced sensors and screens, but this impressive prototype is definitely a glimpse of the direction VR is heading in the future.
The other consumer-oriented demonstration had to do with Sony’s new system for managing high-end, detailed 3D content. The company is known for its best-in-class image processing/upscaling techniques used on its Bravia televisions, so it’s encouraging to see that it is able to build on that with AI and machine learning in order to offer tools targetting photorealistic 3D that’s less demanding on the resources of the computers manipulating it. This tech is not unlike nVidia’s DLSS system for PC games, but it’s developed alongside VFX experts at Sony Pictures, so it’s geared towards cinematic-quality results suitable for any commercial application, be it movies, TV shows or interactive experiences of many types. As complex 4K or even 8K 3D raytraced content is difficult to manage and will be for some time, so anything that’s making the transition easier for content creators is welcome.
After showing off PlayStation5’s Tempest engine for convincing, object-based directional 3D sound in games — Returnal always makes for an impressive demo through a typical stereo headset — Sony’s Technology Day concluded with a taste of more futuristic examples and initiatives. The company’s advanced LIDAR system, for instance, is designed to be built into cars in order to “map” their surroundings accurately and detect objects from 200 meters while the vehicle is moving at high speed. The value of such a system for human life and car damage is obvious. Sony also showed off the level of accuracy it has achieved in controlling robotic arms, as well as a concept environmental management system called “Mimamori”: this is an ambitious network of millions of miniature Sony sensors placed all over the globe, communicating through satellites and relaying information about “the health of the Earth”, essentially. Admirable, if a little naive, is still an example of how Sony can approach high concepts as few other companies can.
What Sony set out to achieve with its Technology Day demonstrations, of course, was not to dazzle consumers with upcoming products or services. It was to prove, more than anything, that its R&D department is now fully capable of working creatively with all product divisions and sister companies in order to create forward-thinking, possibly disruptive tech for a variety of possible future applications. That the company achieved. Whether some of those projects will end up being used as intended and/or at scale is anybody’s guess, but that is true for any R&D department of any modern manufacturer. Sony, at the very least, is not afraid to play with concepts and ideas others don’t — and, for a tech company, this is high praise indeed.