I came to IFA in Berlin fully prepared to bury Sony’s mobile division and its perpetually inadequate efforts to compete in a congested, hypercompetitive smartphone market. The design of the new Xperia XZ1 and XZ1 Compact has barely evolved from the stuff Sony was showing off back in 2012. The specs are so commonplace as to engender merely a shrug. And the cameras, well, let’s just say that Sony’s camera problem is Sony itself — I trust this company to build the world’s greatest imaging sensors, but not to use them properly.
But here’s the surprise that blindsided me, having tried Sony’s new phones at IFA: Sony’s 3D Creator app is an augmented reality marvel that made even my cynical old soul happy and joyful. Up until this year, AR has always been a clumsy gimmick, poorly implemented and mostly useless beyond the initial novelty. Sony’s trick is to create a 3D scanner that is astoundingly accurate and detailed, truly professional level stuff done with just the regular hardware of your Android smartphone.
Apple’s ARKit has proven exciting in large part because you don’t need special equipment or an especially large and clunky device to use it with. I still think it has potential to be a quietly revolutionary change for the way we all use our phones. And Sony’s stepping right up to the same high level of achievement with its 3D Creator.
I scanned the faces of our two video producers here in Berlin, and both were rendered in exceptional 3D detail. Admittedly, my first try on my colleague Tom Warren produced a weirdly misshapen abomination, owing to him moving his head and my just getting to know the software, but with a good and patient subject, this app is mind-blowing.
And here’s the thing, every one of Sony’s previously unappealing AR apps is instantly upgraded when I can inject true lifelike avatars of my friends and colleagues into them. I had one bearded bear avatar doing situps on the desk in front of me, while another, also bearded but dressed in high heels and a red pantsuit, was walking around with a strut. It’s still a dumb app, but it’s got me playing with it instead of dismissing it. That’s the difference that quality makes.
Sony’s vision for the 3D Creator is that people will do full head scans — the more involved version of the face scans I was doing today — as well as food scans and more freeform captures. There’s no particularly elegant way to share these socially, as there’s only a web viewer for Sony’s 3D format, but they’re still terrific and terrifically fun little snippets that people can get super creative with. Imagine using this to plug your likeness into the latest FIFA or NBA video game, or slapping it atop a dancing dinosaur that’s part of your birthday greetings to a family member.
As phones, the Xperia XZ1 and XZ1 Compact are overshadowed by LG’s much more impressive and forward-looking V30, which has been my pick for best device of this year’s IFA show. But as an experience, a surprise and delight, or as a technological trigger for happy emotions, these XZ1 phones have been my highlight. The V30 is a great phone, but the 3D Creator is an even better experience. I’m sure the novelty and the excitement will fade with time, but whenever technology proves itself so instantly engaging, so ready to generate grins on all who touch it, I can do nothing but praise it.