Touring the Sony Archives in Tokyo: Walkmans, robot dogs and a golden guinea pig

Sony has had some tough times recently, and while it's finally started to make some difficult changes in a bid to turn its fortunes around, the Archives building is where the company's success stories live forever. A fair distance from most of Sony's high-rise structures in Shinagawa, it's a well-stocked pantheon to everything that made the electronics maker what it is today. It's open to the public (as long you make an appointment), and the tour includes a rousing TV presentation from Sony co-founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, and a walk through 60 years in the electronics business. An AIBO robot will greet you at the door, and if you've spent any time around tech, there's bound to be something here to make you smile -- even if it's just the Billy Joel CD. Our own highlights are right after the gallery.

If anything, the Archives are a little lacking in products from the last few decades. There's just a single, lonely PlayStation sitting in the 意外 ("unexpected") section and the company's phone presence (it started collaborating with Ericsson in 1987 before buying the arm wholly in 2012) is almost nonexistent.

Our tour guide occasionally jumps in with stories and color, even if our group was more than happy to wander off alone and stare at products like a 0.3-megapixel digital camera (the DSC-F1: "Sony's first!"). We soon reach arguably Sony's biggest product ever, the Walkman, and hear how many executives at Sony just couldn't get the appeal of a portable music player -- let alone one that didn't have a record function.

Fortunately, Sony co-chairman Morita got his way. The Sony exec was apparently never quite satisfied with the name, although there must have been something to it. Its Japanese rivals, the Walky, the CassetteBoy and the MiJockey (from Toshiba, Aiwa and Panasonic, respectively) are a little harder to recall. Subsequent Walkman iterations are also displayed in glass cabinets elsewhere, from the initial model, through those sporty yellow versions, into the (less epoch-defining) MP3 iterations.

Sharing shelf-space nearby, you'll find Sony's AIBO range, with various prototypes and model numbers. Underneath those, the less well-known QRIO bipedal robot stares out impassively -- it never made it to stores.

Back to the main exhibit, there's also space dedicated to the cassette player's replacement: Sony's first compact disc player... with a Billy Joel CD jacket, for any visitors who forgot what CDs were. A few steps farther down, and the aforementioned digital cameras take their place in Sony history, with a brief mention of the now-divorced VAIO PC range. In the center of the Archives, there's space given to Sony's transistor radios, professional recording inventions and its TV developments, including plenty of Trinitron sets, which used a new aperture grille to offer finer picture quality. Alongside the boom in color TVs, well, Sony did OK -- it even won an Emmy for them, which is encased here with the prize-winning set.

A smaller room, off to the side of the main route, houses some of the most interesting stuff, including a prototype electric rice cooker from 1946, whose results varied depending on electricity fluctuations, and an electric cushion so basic (its wires were between reinforced paper) that Sony actually marketed it under a different company, the "Ginza Heating Company."

Nearby, Sony's ill-fated premium QUALIA miniature digital camera is laid to rest, replete with a whole business case of lenses and add-ons. There's also the Chorocco: an adorable toy-sized van that never made it to retail. Intended to inspire creativity within Sony, it was a promotional gadget that "drove" around vinyl records, playing the music out of its built-in speakers.

It's a sign of the times, but the archive could soon be the only Sony building left in this neighborhood. The company, having housed its HQ here for more than six decades, is reportedly attempting to sell the surrounding buildings and land.

But what about the golden guinea pig? A present to Sony co-founder Ibuka from his employees, it was in response to an article that said Sony was a guinea pig for transistors, and that (in 1958) many companies were now besting them in production volume. In a radio interview years later, Ibuka said in response:

"If the guinea pig spirit means developing innovative ideas and embodying them in new products, then I think this is an admirable spirit."

Here's to more guinea pig spirit.