CES 2014 in Summary: Hunting for the WOW Factor and Emotional Response in Consumer Tech


Sony president and CEO Kazuo Hirai delivered quite an interesting 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) opening keynote. Hirai took over as Sony's CEO early in 2013, following what had been a string of four dismal years for the company, when it essentially relinquished ownership of most of the consumer categories it had long led - in particular, the TV and music player segments. In truth the decline began back when the iPod was released - Sony never developed a credible competitive product. Then it lost its substantial reputation in TV leadership to Samsung and LG, both of whom delivered inspired new capabilities and leaving Sony looking as a follower rather than the industry leader.

Hirai took the stage at CES with this recent Sony background fully in mind - and Hirai's greatest challenge was to find not only a path to rekindling interest in Sony during the CES keynote, but to present a powerful vision for where Sony will - or rather, can - head in 2014 and over the next several years. Our sense of it is that he did an excellent job of delivering on both and in the process also presented a heady view of what we as consumers can expect to see from the tech world over the next several years.

Although Hirai delivered the CES opening day keynote, we've decided to use his keynote to instead provide a summary and closing statement of what CES has been about this year from a visionary perspective. As our own coverage areas revolve around wearable tech, mobility and wireless we'll focus on these aspects of the vision. We should note here that the reality of CES extends far beyond consumer electronics - but we're just not going to cover autos (as much as telematics is related to our coverage areas), home automation devices and myriad other such tech, including personal computing tech.

Hirai first introduced us to the Japanese word "kando" - which translates for the most part into "a sense of WOW" (yes, in upper case letters). More formally it means "to move people emotionally" - which in fact Sony has already begun to focus on with its new wearable technology products. Even "Sony's corporate lawyers must deliver on a sense of WOW!" as Hirai puts it.

In moving towards this spirit of kando Hirai has identified the digital imaging space, games, and the mobile space (which includes wearable tech and wireless streaming) as being Sony's true core businesses. Notably missing from that list is the TV business, which Hirai has suggested is no longer one of Sony's core businesses.

Hirai has set a goal of restoring profitability to the TV business within two years, but outside of the goal he does not appear to have a major vision for next generation TVs. We ourselves hardly believe that is true, but he made no real mention of TVs in his keynote and Sony has been notably absent from the move to huge, curved screen TVs, which look to be a next step up for that market. Never the less, 4K (if you don't recall, 4K refers to four times today's HD resolution of 1080px1920) is of huge importance to Sony and we expect to see much more happening on this front over the next several years.

Betamax in 1975 - Whatever, Whenever!

Back in 1975 we were already well into home electronics but we confess that we did not remember or even know for that matter that when Sony introduced its Betamax back then it launched with the tag line "Watch Whatever, Whenever." Talk about being ahead of one's time.

We all remember of course that Betamax went on to fail as a consumer product but it turns out that Betacam became a professional standard. It's interesting history, but perhaps the point is that history repeats itself, and for Sony we mean in a good way, not as a repeat of Betamax. Fast forward to 2014 and Sony is now ready to offer the 21st version of "Watch Whatever. Whenever." In fact delivering on this is a key, Hirai believes, to delivering on the kando/WOW he believes Sony needs to provide its customers, potential customers, and most importantly emerging customers.

That emerging customer, Hirai astutely points out, is no longer someone who is looking for technology (emphasis on "technology") to deliver a merely "ok" means to consuming merely adequate content.  The emerging next generation customer is already a master of technology and is not interested in technology for the sake of technology. Hirai (and Sony) refers to this next gen customer as "Generation Remix."

This next generation doesn't "worship at the altar of technology," Hirai notes. Rather they control technology as a tool to "mold, shape and access" whatever content they want whenever and wherever they want it. Content, in turn, is necessarily defined in very broad terms - whether it is music, video, real time communication between people, or a means to connect with people and do things with them (that could take the form of interactive multiuser game play, a real or electronic social setting, and everything in between.

Technology needs to become invisible and it needs to get out of the way in terms of providing access to all of these things to Generation Remix. Technology must morph into something that offers ease and simplicity that in turn will allow unencumbered creativity. These are all lofty and philosophical notions but the fact of the matter is that as lofty and philosophical as they might sound it is all now rapidly becoming part of the real world of Generation Remix.

Over the last 35 years or so we've heard many different versions of the same lofty philosophy. The one real difference between 1985 and 2014 is that the level of technology that now exists is finally adequate enough to deliver on the notion of getting technology out of the way. As Hirai puts it we've arrived at a point where we (Generation Remix) no longer look to adapt to technology but fully expect technology to adapt to our needs and desires.

Sony's goal then becomes one of creating and engineering ecosystems that "surprise, provoke and thrill." Not from a technology standpoint but rather from a lifestyle standpoint. Doing so, Hirai deeply believes, will deliver on the WOW factor and will create that emotional response that is the foundation of kando.

Going From Kando to "Can Do"

There is much more nuance and detail to what Hirai communicated in setting up the idea of Generation Remix than what we provided above, but the above should get the main points across. The next real question of course is how Sony (but let's keep in mind that it isn't only Sony but essentially every company attending CES) hopes to get there.

Even with the beautifully defined vision Hirai presents, the reality of getting there remains front and center, and one has to ask if Sony will be able to recapture what was once a true leadership role. We can sum up how Sony will deliver on the WOW/kando Hirai has defined through the following:  sensor technology + systems + the cloud + mobile and wearable devices.

To further answer the question Hirai returned to what he and Sony have identified as the company's core businesses: the digital imaging space, games, and the mobile space (including wearable tech and ultra-high definition, 4K wireless streaming). He then extended these to include the notion of living longer, healthier lives, being able to enjoy content at extremely high resolution, and interacting seamlessly with the content we want and sharing what we are doing seamlessly within our mobile, social networks.

Hirai noted that Sony is working on a variety of very high end imaging systems and imaging sensors - the important ones all revolve around 4K imaging, content creation, 4K content playback and wireless streaming and delivery of 4K content. 4K for Sony is a magic key that moves the boundaries of imaging into the boundaries of WOW (e.g. whether critical medical-related imagery, art-based imagery, etc.).

Next Hirai asked: "How can new technology provide the means for delivering better storytelling, better music, better movie content, and unique WOW/kando experiences?" The answer is to create a new era in freedom and choice, along with high resolution content that is truly available at your fingertips. This brings us right back again to 4K content, but with a twist - cloud-based streaming.

For Hirai streaming 4K content through cloud services - whether games played directly through cloud services or TV, video, movie and music content is at the core of providing what Generation Remix is already demanding. Hirai notes that Sony's new 4K Bravia TVs, its new Experia smartphones, it Vaio laptops and PlayStations are end points that are necessary to explore 4K content in its myriad forms. The real challenge is to be able to deliver that content anytime and anywhere Generation Remix wants it. OK, in truth we do need to say here that we ourselves certainly want this as well!

With regard to cloud-based streaming and gaming, Sony recently acquired a company called Gaikai, which has technology in hand that will allow Sony to strongly drive the movement of its video game business into the cloud space very quickly. But there is much more for Sony to stream from the cloud.

Sony will deliver video on demand through cloud services: adaptable TV, cloud-based TV services, combined live TV and on-demand digital media services from a single source, personalized channels and ability of its system to learn about the user and deliver customized content from a single source (across both live and digital media)  to any device at anytime, anywhere, is a key Sony deliverable.

Life Space UX

Finally, we will wrap up here with a final idea from Sony on delivering the WOW - what Sony refers to as its Life Space UX. What does Hirai mean by this? Essentially he is referring to different ways that people can interact with the world around them, including being able to alter that space in ways that were once impossible. Hirai presented several examples of this.

One is Sony's entirely new "Ultra Short Throw Projector" - definitely a WOW and for us one of the absolutely stunning (and of course as yet super expensive) pieces of tech shown at CES (it will become available summer 2014). This new toy will put up as much as a 150 inch diagonal image and will create an amazing window of reality - "a borderless environment that breaks free of conventional boxes and frames," as Hirai puts it.

In the image above the window created is shown on the far left. What is actually displaying the image is the triangular device sitting a mere few feet away from the wall underneath the image. All of it is being shown in 4K resolution! Quite amazing. Of course the image shown can literally be anything you can stream from the cloud or from your personal devices. Shown below is another view.

There is much more that Sony is doing along these lines, but we will leave it here.

It is fair to say that all of the companies at CES have this very same goal in mind - delivering on experiences that leave the tech behind (even as the tech becomes ever more central to the experiences) and delivering on a new scale of emotional response. Sony is taking a number of impressive steps forward and though not every company at CES is operating on the level of Sony, all of them have, in their own ways unique visions that rival Sony's.

All in all it is quite a heady time that lies ahead of us in 2014.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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TechZone360 Senior Editor

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