SONY: A LITTLE SENSOR WITH A BIG FUTUREIts Navicam assistant may spawn a new breed of smart portable devices
It took a few moments before I could get the camera on Sony Corp.'s next-generation personal digital assistant to lock onto the bar code outside an office at Sony's Computer Science Labs. But once I did, the Navicam device came to life. Almost instantly, the top half of the display showed the name and photograph of the researcher inside. Below, I could read a description of his research interests. For more detail, I scrolled down the screen with a pen-input device. Another button let me switch the display from English to Japanese.
The Navicam is a convenient contraption. And it speaks volumes about why Sony has put its posh computer-science lab just down the street from the product planners at corporate headquarters in central Tokyo. Let other labs chase endlessly after the Holy Grails of computer science--Sony understands practical gizmos. Over the next two decades, handheld devices of all kinds will get smarter and more powerful. Sony's research is aimed at maintaining leadership in developing product concepts.
Navicam is the first version of a new product category: smart portables that sense their surroundings. Wandering the spacious halls, I could learn what scientists were up to without disturbing them. And if I wanted to find a particular office, the Navicam led the way.
By 2000, Sony believes smaller and lighter versions will serve as personal guides to major museums and shopping malls. Goggle-style Robocop versions, already developed as prototypes, will let aircraft-maintenance personnel view complex manuals. Molecular scientists or teenage game freaks alike will be able to collaborate in virtual 3-D mind melds.
Sony's efforts in this area are pragmatic--but that doesn't mean inconsequential. The Walkman, for instance, simply repackaged 1979-era technology for a consumer market. Nonetheless, it transformed lifestyles and foreshadowed the coming era of ''wearable computers.''
The Navicam is another step down the same path. It uses an Intel 486 processor and runs the Windows 95 operating system. ''It's the concept that's important,'' says creator Junichi Rekimoto.
Indeed, the Navicam concept is key to Sony's notion of ''context-sensitive,'' friendly computers. Today's Navicam gets information from bar codes and infrared transmissions. Tomorrow's will deduce its location from global-positioning satellites. With cell-phone and wireless network attachments, ''they'll be able to get information on the fly,'' said Rekimoto.
''CREATE A BUDDY.'' Eventually, computers will also need to see for themselves, according to Sony. The latest car-navigation systems explain why. These contain sophisticated computers that use data from satellites and CD-ROM maps. But when presented with novel situations, such as a road blocked by flooding, even the best guides are dumbfounded. To remedy that, Sony researchers are developing small robots mounted with TV cameras that can recognize their environment and self-navigate.
Networks, wireless and wired, will eventually give new life to Sony's old-style products as well. Its researchers are developing a portable device that will play music on demand--a sort of Walkman linked to an audio subset of the Internet that will take requests spoken by joggers on the move.
What will the interface be for all these gadgets? Sony engineers have little patience for today's graphical user interfaces, which they'd like to replace with expressive, human-like faces, or agents that understand natural language. ''One day, you'll carry a very small device in a shirt pocket or wallet,'' said lab director Mario Tokoro. ''You'll create a buddy you can be with all the time.''
Simulating a real face for that buddy is still too hard to do cheaply. In the interim, Sony is exploring animated faces with rudimentary expressions. There's that old pragmatism again. But if Sony can strike the right compromise in cost and function, it may be able to do again what it did with the first Walkman in 1979.
By Steven V. Brull in Tokyo
Updated June 23, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.