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Sony should be taking bigger risks at CES

Outside of PlayStation, it continues to struggle

Bloomberg via Getty Images

I've always had a soft spot for Sony. I grew up with a Walkman cassette player and an absurd 13-inch Sony TV set hooked up to the Sega Saturn in my bedroom. But in recent years, I've grown increasingly concerned about the company's future. Yes, the PlayStation brand is strong, and its image-sensor division remains a lucrative asset. But in so many other categories, Sony is struggling. Take its smartphone business: The X line was a disappointment last year, doing little to change the sluggish sales of the Z series that came before it.

Sony needs a revival, and the best time to do it is at CES. Typically, the company shows off a mixture of TVs, projectors, headphones and speakers. We see the occasional smartphone and wacky R&D project, but they're never more than a sliver of its showing. There's nothing wrong with this focus, given that personal audio and home-theater represent a large part of its business. But so often these products are iterative, offering minor improvements over the previous year's model. They might be best in class, but Sony needs a bolder, wilder hand at CES to grab headlines and get the public excited again.


Kazuo Hirai unveils a new 4K, OLED TV on stage. Credit: DAVID MCNEW via Getty Images

Occasionally, Sony delivers. The company's PS-HX500 turntable was a hit last year, winning praise for its minimalist design and digital copying abilities. But vinyl, despite its recent resurgence, is still a niche format. Even its compact cameras, like the slick A7R and RX100 series, could be considered minor releases. They take amazing photos and shutterbugs love them, but they're part of an ever-shrinking market. Specialist items, just like the hi-res Walkman players that it continues to roll out every year.

I had hoped for a change this year, but Sony stuck to its playbook. Chief Executive Kazuo Hirai unveiled a new 4K OLED TV that packs impressive picture quality into a tiny frame. I was smitten with the design, although the TV's approach to sound, which uses the screen itself as a speaker, didn't impress some of my Engadget colleagues. There was also a $25,000 short-throw projector that can throw a 100-inch image from only 6 inches away. That price, however, instantly makes it a pipe dream for most people. Aspirational, yes, but not even close to attainable.

Sony's new 'Life Space' projector is perfect for tiny apartments. Shame it costs $25,000.

The rest of Sony's press conference this week was mostly devoted to rehashing older products. The company touched on the RX100 V, a point-and-shoot announced last October. Hirai referenced PlayStation VR, too, but didn't disclose sales numbers or any meaningful new software that might have swayed people on the fence about buying one. Instead, we got a new sales milestone for the PlayStation 4: 53.4 million, an impressive figure but one that serves merely as self-congratulation. We know the console is killing it, Sony.

I think the company needs a new strategy. A CES press conference is a preview of the next 12 months; a statement of intent from executives and product designers alike. For Sony, treading water is not an option. Hirai and the team need to punctuate the usual announcements with some bolder, wilder products. I like its black obelisk aesthetic, but maybe it's time to try something new. Remember when Samsung reinvigorated its Galaxy line with the first Edge phones? Sony needs a similar leap in design to stand out from the competition. Some ideas will invariably fail, but the company shouldn't be afraid to take risks. It's time to leave pride and tradition at the door.

It's time to leave pride and tradition at the door.

What's frustrating is that Hirai knows this. At the start of his speech, Sony's CEO reiterated the idea of kandou. "Whenever you see, touch or interact with our products, we want to stimulate an emotional response," he said. "Kandou just doesn't happen in some abstract space in the cloud; it happens when we create objects of desire."

We've seen glimpses of a bolder Sony before. The Xperia Agent, for instance, packed a projector and adorable robot face into an Echo-style speaker. It even made my colleague James Trew a cup of coffee. But almost 12 months later, can you buy one? Not that I'm aware of. Sony needs to pick its best R&D projects and really get behind them. Court developers, like Amazon did with the Echo, and take them on the road, where people can see them and fall in love. It's done it before with gaming products like the PlayStation VR -- it just needs to blow the idea out.

The Xperia Agent, in all its adorable glory.

Sony's press conferences should end with people clamoring for prices and release dates. Walking around its booth this week, I just didn't get that impression from other attendees. Curious and impressed, yes, but not inspired to suddenly embrace an all-Sony lifestyle. PlayStation aside, Sony's image is a little musty. The name is synonymous with quality but not, I would argue, excitement. Most people don't aspire to own a home full of Sony hardware, and that's a problem for Hirai and his team.

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