It was a hot summer night, I had dinner plans with Hiroyuki, a friend who has been working for Sony for the last 18 years. After a few too many rounds of sake, Hiroyuki started telling me that he worked in a secret lab from Sony. After finishing dinner and a couple more rounds I convinced Hiroyuki to bring me there to see the secret lab he worked at. It seems that it wasn’t so secret after all…
We were walking for 20 minutes until we left the skyscraper area and we got into a residential area with narrow streets until we arrived at a bungalow. It was a bit bigger than the rest from the neighbourhood, but there was no sign of any investigation being held by any Sony employee, the mailbox wasn’t under Sony’s name but Hiroyuki’s manager. We enter the garden where they had a couple of benches and a terrace to relax. Hiroyuki told me that he liked to go to the garden to read and relax during working hours.
The living room was full of bookshelves with hundreds of books and a couple whiteboards covered in formulae, in the centre there were a couple of sofas where three Aibo dogs where lying and on the sides some work desks and a couple flat screens connected to all sorts of Sony equipment: I remember having seen from the very latest Playstation 3 to Betacam players. The living room was connected to the kitchen and several bedrooms without beds, the majority of them having a single work desk and bookshelves full of books and gadgets. One of them was full of video cameras pointing at the center of the room and all walls fully covered in flat screens. Hiroyuki explained to me that they use it to test different ways of interaction and game immersion. In another room they got many idea prototypes, some of them made of clay or even plasticine. Hiroyuki told me that one of the first models of what became the robotic dog Aibo came from that room.
Aibo’s creator, Hiroaki Kitano, doesn’t work with Hiroyuki, but he also works in another “secret” lab where Sony leaves scientists think freely without any constraint. I met Hiroaki Kitano two years later in a visit to Sony Computer Science Lab, which is the largest “secret” lab Sony has. Sony Computer Science Lab is also in a quiet and secluded area and there they work over 30 scientists from very diverse backgrounds. There are medical doctors, surgeons, theoretical physicists, bio-engineers, biologists, computer scientists, mathematicians, language theorists, neuro-scientists, economists and even musicians; all of them work in the same lab and each one of them does whatever they please without any pressure from Sony, they have complete freedom and no obligation or pressure to generate revenue, as would be normal in any other company. I was fascinated by the relaxed atmosphere and the mixture of disciplines that I had the chance of witnessing during a couple of brainstorming sessions I attended.
Sony Computer Science Lab is conceiving ideas for the cure of cancer and some of them have become the basis for new anti-cancer treatments, new scientific fields have been created such as econophysics, some key developments on natural language along mankind history have been discovered, some key facts that could turn into new theories on the origin of life on planet Earth have been discerned, even new musical instruments have been created. Other Sony “secret” labs, like the one Hiroyuki works at, have given birth to Aibo, the first Playstation controller or Sony’s Eye Toy, the new camera concept from Sony that totally changed the way to interact with videogames by simply moving the body.
The meaning behind these Sony labs is to think with the widest possible angle but at the same time to deepen into those unexplored areas, it’s also mixing and creating completely new disciplines, going further than the current technology, thinking ahead of the rest, untie oneselves from the borders and limitations of current computer science and even forget about them diving completely into other disciplines. Sony set their brightest minds free, in labs around the residential areas of Tokyo where they can keep changing the world using this innovation method without the corporate life’s constraints.
Article originally published in the Spanish newspaper El País.