Special report: inside Panasonic's Tokyo gadget paradise

For some reason Matsushita is a company that has a dowdy image that’s way off kilter with what it actually does. Sony, Nintendo and plenty of others seem way cooler somehow, but why?

It’s probably to do with the name – the brand name Panasonic is actually far better known than the parent company Matsushita, which confuses matters somewhat. Come October, that won’t matter, as the company is going Panasonic all over and Matsushita will disappear forever.

Beside the seaside

Putting that all aside for now, we headed to the Panasonic - see what we mean about the name? - Center (they use US English) just outside Tokyo to see what the mixed-up company is doing with its time and we weren’t disappointed.

The bay side building looks a little like a repurposed aircraft hanger, but the copious blobs of schoolchildren milling around receiving the good word from squadrons of female guides in Panasonic colours give it away for the educational forum/PR soapbox it really is.

Sidestepping the masses, we took the express elevator to an exclusive fourth-floor enclave of all things good and were immediately assaulted by a stunning video wall made up of four enormous plasma televisions.

Naturally, these were the 103-inch PDPs Panasonic made famous at CES in 2006. At six million yen apiece, the single video installation we were looking at was worth roughly £120,000, or the price of a mid-range Ferrari.

Almost unbelievably, the company says it has sold over 3,000 of the sets around the world. Spokesperson Kyoko Ishii told us: “They are selling well in countries in the Middle East, where rich people use them for home theater screens. They’re also used in public areas like airports, hotels and stadiums.”

Since we’re not rich oil barons, all we got was a video explaining that Panasonic is a “manufacturing-oriented company” with over 300,000 staff around the world.

Hearing aids too

Moving swiftly on, the meat of the tour yielded some surprisingly tasty surprises – did you know that Panasonic makes some of the best and smallest hearing aids in the world? Blood sugar monitors for diabetics? Hairdryers? No – neither did we.

Slightly more useful than hair-care products based on dubious science (a stream of something called nanoe ions is supposed to make your hair shiny), a selection of advanced domestic lighting looked like it might actually make a difference.

Power-saving light bulbs that last five times longer than normal bulbs while consuming 80 per cent less power and LED lights that keep going for 20 times the normal bulb lifespan are clearly worth the extra few pennies they cost.

The most impressive lighting feature of all was actually outside the centre. Kaze Kamome, or Wind Seagull, is the name given to a fancy exterior light mast that wouldn’t look out of place in Bladerunner.

Ringing the building, the masts generate electricity from solar panels at their head and triple-blade windmills in the body of each unit. As well as lighting themselves up at night, the devices can generate power to run, for example, heating or cooking equipment after a natural disaster.

Handy robot

Moving on to possible future products, it seems Panasonic has been dabbling in robotics. The first prototype is a mechanical hand known as the Differential Shaft Mechanism Hand, or DSM-Hand for short.

Ever the altruist, Panasonic plans to develop the prototype into something that may one day replace a lost limb. As it uses differential gears instead of separate motors for each joint, the hand is light and can be made relatively cheaply.

As we found out when passing delicate objects like glasses and fruit to the hand, it has a delicate touch – sensors tell it when it is applying just the right amount of pressure to grip, but not damage, what it is touching.

J Mark Lytle was an International Editor for TechRadar, based out of Tokyo, who now works as a Script Editor, Consultant at NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Writer, multi-platform journalist, all-round editorial and PR consultant with many years' experience as a professional writer, their bylines include CNN, Snap Media and IDG.