We all know Sony for its games hardware, TVs, cameras and other audio-visual products, but it's not such common knowledge that the company has a bleeding-edge research laboratory dedicated to exploring the technology of tomorrow just for the heck of it.
Sure, something the researchers come up with might be the next big thing and make the company a bundle, but it's a heck of a lot of fun just poking around to see what's possible, which is precisely what I did on a visit to the Sony Computer Science Laboratories (CSL) in the heart of Tokyo this morning.
The Sony CSL Open House is a once-a-year invitation-only event held over two pretty ordinary floors of a Shinagawa office building but showcasing enough daydreaming gadgetry to get the most hardened otaku hot and sweaty.
Although much of the work on show was pretty conceptual, the display that got most visitors gawking was a circular table known as ChatScape. The device was really just a laptop connected to a top-down projector in the centre of the table that threw rotating images onto the flat surface below, but the novelty of emailing it snapshots from your mobile phone and seeing them appear on and swirl around the table was worth the trip alone.
Putting such frivolity to one side, the next-biggest draw was a huge display emphasising just how significant the PlaceEngine technology we saw at work in the PSP earlier this week will be soon. PlaceEngine - to put it simply - uses Wi-Fi as an alternative to GPS for pinpointing physical locations. Most excitingly, it has a strong element of user collaboration - earnest strollers armed with a PDA, PSP or other PlaceEngined-up piece of kit can contribute to a Wi-Fi map that grows in accuracy as folk tell it what precise location corresponds to a particular Wi-Fi signal pattern.
Researcher Atsushi Shionozaki demonstrated how he had used a version of the software he hacked together on his smartphone to map his travels around Tokyo last weekend and to combine it with a chronological record of his iPod-listening habits that day. With a spot of online information sharing, it would be a simple matter to see, for example, what track fellow geeks listen to under a particular overpass. In this case, it was - no surprises - a certain Red Hot Chili Peppers' classic.
Other, perhaps more useful, applications Sony imagines include life-pattern analysis ('Do I really keep going to that booze shop at midnight?'), memory aids (ditto), and - more likely - auto-blogging of the 'where I went, what I did today variety'. Shionozaki enthused, "With a suitable device, users can tag anything they do - we call it real-world folksonomy."
On the hardware front, Shionozaki also showed a prototype key-ring equipped with the PlaceEngine software that can track a wearer's movements throughout the day and synchronise later with photos, for example, and demonstrated a device already capable of just that. The Cyber-shot DSC-G1 digital camera already has onboard Wi-Fi, but an adapted version was on show also with PlaceEngine software for geotagging all photographs.
Naturally, all this Wi-Fi mapping requires the presence of a Wi-Fi signal, so it's limited to urban areas like downtown Tokyo for now.
One of the other CSL projects most likely to succeed was a nifty little piece of graphics software for mobile phones by Ivan Poupyrev. It might not sound like much, but the ability to draw realistic icons and avatars directly on a standard (non-touchscreen) phone is sure to add appeal to users of mobile social-networking sites.
Poupyrev's software relies on mapping the keypad's buttons to a 3x4 grid of pixels on the screen - pushing a button turns the corresponding pixel on or off, while holding a second button simultaneously allows for a spot of greyscale. Touch another key and the grid zooms in to allow work on a much finer scale. It might sound complicated in theory, but in practice it was a breeze to draw pretty sophisticated graphics with just a handful of keys. With a colour version on the drawing board, watch out for this one for sure.
Elsewhere, a system for creating manga-style comic-strips from mobile-phone photographs and a new CAD application that virtually constructs not just the surface of objects, but also their interiors are worth keeping an eye on in future. The former will inevitably appear on Japanese phones before long, while the latter has medical and educational applications in that it allows for more realistic simulations before surgery or in lessons.
Nano-tech in action
Lastly, the most attractive exhibit, labouring under the heading here of 'Music synchronised artistic expressions for Ferrofluid', but properly known as 'Morpho Tower', was an afternoon's entertainment in itself. The artwork, by non-CSL researcher Sachiko Kodama, working with CSL's Yasushi Miyajima, consisted of a dome filled with ferromagnetic nano particles suspended in a treacly black oil. Using a cunning combination of voltage-regulated electromagnets and metadata added to music beforehand, the nanites appeared to react to the music, assemble themselves in line and form a stunning tree-like display on a central metal pillar. Clearly, nano is the new black.
Although there was far too much on display today to cover in depth here, there was a clear emphasis on what many predict will be the boom technology of the next few years - social networking in all its forms.
Existing websites, such as Facebook and YouTube , already make plenty of hay in the collaborative/sharing sunshine and it's obvious that it won't be long before major manufacturers like Sony enable many more of their real-world products to get friendly with each other - and with every man and his dog, which is a whole other can of worms, of course.
Update: Here's a link to a video of the amazing nano-tech oil in action .