It could be the start of a new Sony -- a company that's trying to recalibrate its new product compass by throwing nascent ideas and projects to the public... and asking for money. Perhaps Sony's most interesting move might be launching First Flight, its very own crowdfunding platform-slash-online store expressly for its employees' pet projects. These projects have passed auditions in front of senior execs: In fact the Seed Acceleration Project (SAP) has even been granted a fair amount of autonomy from Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai.Even if it still feels a little odd for a firm this size to be asking you to fund its next hit, some of those seeds are now taking root. We visited the company's "Creative Lounge," where employees and outsiders work on pitches as well as prototype products. We got to take a look at three of the most developed projects. Here's what we thought.
Gallery: Sony's new hope: crowdfunded products | 9 Photos
MESH raised its funds through Indiegogo, surpassing its goal back in March. It's a DIY smart project maker that Sony reckons can be up and running in mere minutes. The team created a simple, clean "visual design" app to combine and tie together inputs and outputs. Those inputs and outputs are realized through tags: brightly colored bricks that look like stumpy USB drives. At the moment, the set includes an accelerometer, button, LED and slightly more complicated GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) tag, which has digital and analog input/outputs that can connect other detectors or actuators such as light sensors, motors and circuit boards.
It's geared toward kids, and at Sony's seed event we saw brightly colored combinations that tied the tags to tabletop games, or smart notification systems that ping your smartphone. It's now up for preorder on Amazon in the US, as well as Sony's First Flight. But the building blocks of invention don't come with an entry-level price: Each tag is currently priced at $50 (and up) apiece. In its favor, designing and programming the tags was straightforward, and at least from a cursory play, the learning curve is a shallow one. You'll get out of the kit what you put in, and while it may not have the depth of a Raspberry Pi or BBC's new tiny computer, it has a breezy design and simple interface. The system also reminds us of SmartThings' smart home-centered collection of sensors and connectivity. (That's a company now owned by Samsung.)
The FES watch houses an e-paper display in the watch face, which then stretches across the watch strap too. Users can cycle through 24 different combinations of watchband designs, all monochrome, and a lot of them oddly cartoony, with big, bold faux-stitching or outlines. Does it look familiar? We reported on the watch when it launched on Japanese crowdfunding site Makuake. It may not be a smartwatch, but it's pretty darn smart looking. It will apparently run for two months on a single charge; your mileage will obviously vary depending on how many times you're cycling through those designs. The screen refreshes and displays the time as you lift your wrist. The watch is described as a canvas -- apparently that's the design inspiration. It's meant to show what users wants to show -- on both the face and strap, although at the moment, that only ranges from block monochrome to black-and-white patterns. The watch is on sale to Japanese backers for 30,000 yen (around $245), but it won't be dispatched for a few months.
The price could be a sticking point, but as outlined by SAP's head Shinji Odajima as he showcased the devices and how the accelerator program will work, one of its aims is to drum up support from early adopters: a crowd willing to pay a price that may seem excessive to others. Depending on the reception of the watch, however, the possibilities don't have to stop there. As seen above, the same e-paper technology could be easily transferred into other wearables: from smaller bracelets and rings to an eye-catching pair of glasses -- our top pick for a sequel FES product.
HUIS custom remote
Universal remotes are nothing new. However, the HUIS remote (pronounced "haus") is a thoroughly modern take, with barely a button on it, even if there's something a little bit "OG iPod" to that e-paper touchscreen. The primary feature here is a very customizable interface, one that not only simplifies your Blu-ray remote control down to a handful of buttons, but also includes another remote "page" a swipe away that offers up switches for everything that the HUIS connects too -- and that includes fans, air-con and compatible lights. There's also haptic feedback as you interact with the touchscreen, which is as responsive as the e-paper touch display on a Kindle. It worked well in the demo situation, and while the controller has a fair bit of junk in the trunk at the base (It charges through micro-USB; no more batteries!), we reckon it could benefit from being a little slimmer. The team also says it's working on a charging dock -- which sounds very Sony.
Through a PC interface, you can transfer new remote layouts: an accessibility-friendly one with giant channel buttons and a giant off switch, or maybe a monochromatic teddy holding a single button. The crowdfunding round, done exclusively on Sony's own platform, has raised over 17.5 million yen as of writing -- that's around $142,000 from Japanese early adopters willing to pay roughly $200 for a programmable controller. It's also the most traditionally "Sony" device we've seen so far. Despite its prototype status, the function, feel and look of it struck a chord with this editor. That price, however, didn't.