Sony Corp. (6758), which popularized portable music players with the Walkman, is seeking a U.S. patent for “SmartWig” hairpieces that could help navigate roads, check blood pressure or flip through slides in a presentation.
The wig would communicate wirelessly with another device and include tactile feedback, Sony said in the filing with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Depending on the model, the hairpiece may include a camera, laser pointer or global positioning system sensor, it said.
The development of wearable technology such as eyeglasses, watches and earpieces is expanding as consumers seek new ways to integrate computers into everyday life. The race to gain a foothold in a market that Juniper Research estimates will jump about 14-fold in five years to $19 billion is luring companies including Sony, Google Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. (005930)
“It’s an interesting idea but I think it would be very difficult for Sony to commercialize,” said Mitsushige Akino, chief fund manager at Ichiyoshi Asset Management Co. in Tokyo. “Who will want to use this wig will become a problem.”
Shares of Sony rose 1.1 percent to 1,869 yen in Tokyo trading. The stock has gained 95 percent this year, compared with a 45 percent advance for the benchmark Topix index.
“It is an object to provide an improved wearable computing device,” Sony said in the patent application. “At least one sensor, the processing unit and the communication interface are arranged in the wig and at least partly covered by the wig in order to be visually hidden during use.”
The wig could be made from “horse hair, human hair, wool, feathers, yak hair, buffalo hair or any kind of synthetic material,” Sony said.
The device was invented by Hiroaki Tobita, who works at Sony Computer Science Laboratories Inc., and the application was made May 10. Saori Takahashi, a Tokyo-based spokeswoman for Sony, confirmed the application.
“Smartwatches are already made by many companies, so this is something new and fun,” Junya Ayada, a Tokyo-based analyst at Daiwa Securities Group Inc., said by phone.
Intellectual property has become a key battleground for technology companies, with Apple Inc. and Samsung fighting in courtrooms in the U.S., Australia, Germany, Japan and South Korea.
Sony was issued 3,022 U.S. patents in 2012, ranking behind International Business Machines Corp., Samsung and Canon Inc. (7751), according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Sony added more U.S. patents last year than Microsoft Corp. (MSFT:US) and General Electric Co. (GE:US), according to the data.
“It has not been decided whether to commercialize the technology or not,” Takahashi said by phone. “The research process is continuing.”
There are three prototypes, including the Presentation Wig that has a laser point and can change PowerPoint slides by pulling left and right on the device. The Navigation Wig uses a GPS and vibration to direct the user, while the Sensing Wig gathers information from inside the body such as temperature and blood pressure, Takahashi said.
The company already has wearable devices on the market. Sony introduced its SmartWatch 2 this year, offering a second screen for users of the Xperia smartphone. The previous model was introduced last year as a slightly smaller successor to Sony’s LiveView watch.
Sony has been studying new wearable devices and customers’ needs for them, Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai told reporters in October. The maker of Xperia handsets has said it’s considering applying its image sensors to wearable computers and hand-gesture TVs as it expects smartphone revenue to peak in about 2015.
The company plans to seek growth in developing the chips, already used in smartphones and digital cameras, for products such as self-driving cars and medical equipment, Yasuhiro Ueda, senior vice president for Sony’s image sensor unit, said in a September interview.
Samsung, Asia’s largest technology company, last month registered a design in South Korea for eyeglasses that can show information from a smartphone and enable users to take calls. It released the Galaxy Gear smartwatch in September.
Google’s Glass are wearable computer spectacles that can take pictures and videos and share information via the Internet. It may be available this year or next, according to a company blog.
Iriver Inc. (060570) released a headset in the U.S. with a small sensor that shines light into the ear to track a user’s heart rate, distance and speed traveled, and calories burned.
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