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March 12, 2016

Sony shows off its first set of weird and wild Future Labs prototypes

by John_A

Last week, Sony took the wraps off its Future Lab initiative — an R&D arm of the company showing off early prototypes of products and gathering feedback to help shape their development process. Today at SXSW, Sony showed off some of those prototypes to the press. As expected, the company had a new type of wearable to show off. It’s called the Arc, and its design reminded me of some Bluetooth headphone sets out there — but the device is quite a bit different than a simple pair of headphones.

Perhaps the easiest way to describe the Arc is to call it an Amazon Echo you wear around your neck. The device is built for hands-free operation; four microphones are built in with noise-cancelling features around so you can always talk to it. After saying your trigger phrase (“Listen up Arc!”), it’ll start listening for your command and use your phone’s GPS to give you location-based info. Right now, you can ask the Arc to tell you the weather, give you local news, local restaurant info and even to take a photograph.

Yup, that’s right: There’s a tiny camera embedded in the Arc. But Sony appears to have learned from Google Glass, as that camera is hidden by default and only opens up if you tell the device to take a photo. It’s a fun little trick to see the camera lens pop into view and then disappear again.

The Arc’s last trick is to play back audio without you needing to wear earbuds. Thanks to some clever speaker placement, the Arc does a pretty great job at reproducing audio in a limited range around your head while still letting you clearly hear what’s happening around you. The prototype I tried didn’t give off truly high-quality audio, but it certainly sounded better than I expected and would work in a pinch for the Arc’s intended capabilities.

If you want better audio performance, Sony is also making a pair of earbuds with a unique twist. These so-called “open-ear earphones” consist of a driver that has a small tube going off of it that ends in a small open circle you put in your ear. It’s a weird thing to describe, but ultimately it manages to do a very good job of transmitting the audio from the driver into your ear while still letting you hear everything around you. I had multiple conversations with music playing in my ear and had no problem hearing the people I was talking to.

Whether or not the Arc has any chance of succeeding where Google Glass failed remains to be seen — Sony will have to do a lot to make it clear how it can be useful to potential buyers, but the company reinforced the fact that this device is still very much a prototype. How it might exist in its final form remains to be seen.

That’s just one of the experimental devices Sony was showing off. The company also had a black box that looked like a Bluetooth speaker that featured a much more impressive feature. It’s meant to be mounted above a surface like a tabletop; once set up, it can project down onto the table and essentially turn it into a touchscreen. But the project isn’t just touch-sensitive — it can also calculate depth thanks to cameras pointing at the table.

Sony had a pretty crazy demo that’s rather hard to describe to show off this unnamed device’s power. In the demo, you opened up a physical copy of the book Alice in Wonderland — the camera and projector then started interacting with the contents of the book. The drawings came to life and literally jumped off the page onto the table; you could drag them and move them wherever you want. You could also highlight passages from the book and the words would float out of the book. It was really interesting, and while the practical applications remain to be seen, it was a seriously impressive piece of technology.

The other projector prototype Sony showed off felt a little less potentially useful, but it still had some pretty fun features. It was an “aim-able projector” — using a black wand attached to the device, you could point the projector anywhere along a wall that you wanted to, and a speaker array attached to the device made it sound like audio was coming from wherever the projection was at any given moment. In the demo Sony showed us, the projector put a small alien UFO on the wall, and as you moved it across the wall, the audio followed the projection. Sony even rigged up a gun let you move the projector around to shoot UFOs off the wall. It was another bizarre demonstration in a night full of weird ideas from Sony, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun.

The last gadget Sony showed off was a bit more low-key than these demos, but no less fun. It was an advanced haptic controller — basically a touch screen with an accelerometer and some seriously impressive haptic feedback capabilities. The demo I tried basically amounted to a ball on the touchscreen, and as I tilted the controller, I could “feel” the ball bouncing around. It was as if there actually was a rubber ball contained inside the controller, and its bouncing felt real in my hands. You could even switch up the material of the ball, so a metal ball had its own distinct haptic feeling. It was a weird experience, but it seems like the kind of thing that’ll be great in the next PlayStation controller.

Beyond the viability of these products (or the lack thereof), it’s pretty great to see Sony showing off so much weird technology ahead of its release in consumer-ready products. It’s easy to forget now as the company’s innovative spirit dropped over the years, but Sony has a rich history of trying plenty of weird technology and pushing it into the mainstream. Getting more public sneak peeks at what the company is working on can only be good for the technology industry as a whole — and entertaining to those of us who follow it.

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