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It’s a Sony

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Tokyo Thrift special: ‘It’s a Sony’ exhibit shows off decades of decadent design

I’ve been doing the Tokyo Thrift column for the best part of a year now, and it’s been a lot of fun covering a wide range of Japanese gadgets that otherwise might not get much attention in 2016. One name keeps popping up, though: Sony. It’s easy to see why, since the Japanese giant was the dominant force in consumer electronics throughout the second half of the 20th century, and is well known for its commitment to engineering innovation and occasional design hubris. Products like the Eggo headphones, Rolly, and VAIO P really couldn’t have come from anywhere else.

Tokyo Thrift is a column on The Verge where Sam Byford, news editor for Asia, trawls the second-hand market to explore the history, design, and culture of Japanese gadgets. It runs on the last Sunday of each month.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the iconic, soon-to-be-demolished Sony Building in Ginza, Tokyo. To celebrate the company’s 70th anniversary, Sony is replacing its flagship location with a public park that it hopes will become a new landmark in the city. And until construction starts next year, the building is hosting a wonderful exhibition called “It’s a Sony,” which places hundreds of devices on show from the company’s inception to the present day.

This will be the last Tokyo Thrift of 2016, since the last Sunday of the year falls on Christmas Day. Although this is the first time I haven’t actually gone out and bought a product for the column, I thought it would be a good way to draw a line under the year — and maybe Sony itself — by covering a huge number of gadgets at once. This way, I can shift focus to other companies next year.

Though, you know, I can’t promise I won’t be occasionally tempted by Sony again.

The Qualia range was a “Sony group-wide movement aiming to truly touch our customer’s heards, leading to the creation of emotional values.” This 007 speaker system came out in 2003 and was designed to “recreate the satisfaction of listening to live performances.”
The Qualia 010 headphones came out in 2004 with the intention of providing an “immersive experience as if sitting in the audience at a concert hall”.
Sony released the Librie in 2004. With its 6-inch 800 x 600 E Ink display, it was the world’s first electronic-paper e-reader and pre-empted the Amazon Kindle by three years.
The Sony Mylo came out in 2006, soon after the PlayStation Portable, and was essentially a PSP with a sliding keyboard and no games. The name stood for “my life online,” but the portable internet device only had a Wi-Fi connection and very limited functionality.
This is Q.taro, a 2001 prototype “portable robot healing creature” with 36 sensors for coordination with others and collision avoidance.
Second-generation AIBO robots from 2001. “Latte” is on the left and “Macaron” is on the right; the one in the middle is the lower-end “Pug” model.
This is the final AIBO robot, the ERS-7 from 2003. Its image recognition capabilities gave it more emotional range than any other AIBO dog to date.
A QRIO robot prototype from 2003. Its features included the ability to sing and dance to original music by Ryuichi Sakamoto. “In addition to its ability to not fall over, it is equipped with technologies to respond to when it does actually fall over,” Sony also says.
2002’s Cybershot U was a tiny palm-sized digital camera that weighed just 87g and had a 1.3 megapixel sensor.
The XEL-1 was the world’s first OLED TV. It came out way back in 2007, but it only had an 11-inch screen and cost a staggering $2,500. Now you can get a 12-inch OLED tablet like Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S2 for something like a sixth of that price.
The well-received PlayStation VR is just Sony’s first successful attempt at getting you to strap displays over your eyeballs. The HMZ-T1 Personal 3D Viewer came out in 2011, and allowed you to watch 3D movies at 720p resolution. The effect was pretty good, but the headset was heavy and uncomfortable.
Earlier than that was the Glasstron PLM-50, released all the way back in 1996. It had a “52-inch” virtual screen with adjustable transparency so that it could be used in various environments.
This is the KDL-46X1000 from 2005, the first ever Bravia TV. Did you know that Bravia stands for Best Resolution Audio Visual Integrated Architecture? You do now. Sony probably made the right call by not explaining this in the instantly iconic “Heartbeats” commercial that launched the brand, which featured hundreds of thousands of colorful balls bouncing down the streets of San Francisco.
2004’s Air Board LF-X1, a portable TV that used wireless networking and could be used in the bathroom with a protective jacket.
The PSX was a special Japan-exclusive model of the PlayStation 2 that came out in 2003 and included a TV tuner and recorder. I think it is ultra-hot.
Five years before Steve Jobs pulled the first MacBook Air out of an envelope, Sony’s gorgeous VAIO Note 505 Extreme was 9.7mm thick and just 825g. A limited $4,000 Sony Style model used the world’s first carbon fiber laminated sheet to achieve an even lighter weight of 785g.
When Microsoft announced the Surface Studio a month ago, my first thought was that it reminded me of 2000’s VAIO LX. This Sony desktop PC had an integrated pen for tablet functionality, and the touch display could tilt from 90 degrees vertically to 25 degrees horizontally.
The Clié PEG-S500C came out in 2000 and was Sony’s first Palm computer. Its 256-color LCD could show photos stored on a Memory Stick.
The Vaio QR from 2000 had a handbag-style design that also worked as a tilt stand.
2007’s VGX-TP1 was a unique PC designed to be connected to a TV. There was an optional digital tuner in the same shape.
This is the Net Juke NAS-A1 from 2004, a networked audio system that let you download music and buy CDs through the internet.
The original PlayStation from 1994, arguably Sony’s last genuinely world-changing product.
1998’s PocketStation was a Japan-exclusive PlayStation accessory that plugged into the console’s memory card slot. You could play simple games on the go and unlock extra functionality in the full console version at home.
The first PS2 from 2000 is still my favourite console design of all time.
Sony’s cute PSone redesign of the original PlayStation also came out in 2000, and was joined the next year by a 5-inch LCD attachment designed to let you play the system outdoors or in a car.
The PCG-505 was the first VAIO laptop, released in 1997. It was thin and light for the time, using a magnesium frame to come in at 23.9mm thick and 1.35kg.
1991’s IDS-300, an “intelligent dialer” portable telephone that stored 330 contacts and had extra features like a schedule planner and a calculator.
The MZ-1 from 1992, the first ever MiniDisc recorder. You didn’t get much size benefit over a CD Discman with this particular model.
The distinctive “My First Sony” range, a masterclass in brand association for kids.
The Mavica MVC-FD5 was an early digital camera that came out in 1997; it saved JPEG files to floppy disk, of all things.
1987’s PJ-100, an ultraportable (ish) word processor with a 2-inch data disk drive.
The 3.5-inch FD from 1980, the world’s first 3.5-inch floppy disk. A later design based on this became the ubiquitous global standard, though its legacy today is largely seen in “save” icons.
Sony’s 1983 HB-101 MSX computer.
Look at all these failed Sony proprietary storage formats. (I suppose the CD did okay.)
Betamax tapes only went out of production this year, amazingly.
The D-50 CD player was developed to be the size of four CD cases. Next to it is a wooden block used to mock up the size for engineers.
The D-150, one of my favorite Discman designs. Came out in 1988, could be from 2088.
These Discmans were designed for the smaller Mini CD format; the one on the left could play regular discs, too, if you didn’t mind carrying around a plastic buzzsaw.
Here’s where it all started — the first ever Walkman, the TPS-L2 from 1979. It had two headphone jacks.
Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge
The Color Watchman FDL-33S, a modular portable TV from 1998. You could attach and detach the monitor, tuner, and battery depending on the situation.
The ICF-7500 from 1976, a separable radio that serves as an early example of Sony’s developing focus on sleek design. Its slim body had no protruding controls and was easily openable with a sturdy hinge.
Somehow, the same company put out the Chorocco the same year — it’s a toy Volkswagen van with built-in speakers that plays music as it drives across the surface of a record.
This intense thing from 1976 is called the Jackal FX-300 — it’s a radio/tape recorder/TV combo with a design inspired by airplane cockpits.
1968’s KV-1310, the first Trinitron TV. The Trinitron brand was one of Sony’s most enduring for several decades, lasting into the 21st century before the rise of LCD and plasma forced Sony to pivot into the Bravia brand.
The single three-beamed electron gun that was the key to Trinitron’s sharp pictures.
The “Digital 24” 8FC-59 was the world’s first digital clock radio. It came out in 1968, and still looks pretty great today.
1960’s TV8-301, which Sony describes as the “world’s first direct-view portable transistor TV.” Apparently even back then it was only for very rich gadget nerds, a market Sony has always made sure to serve to this day.
The “Micro TV” TV5-303, the smallest and lightest portable black and white TV in the world in 1962. Sony says over 7,000 people visited its 5th Avenue showroom in New York City to see it.
The Micro-S TV4-203 was a 4-inch black-and-white TV from 1964 that ran off nine batteries and gave 7 hours of view time.
The TR-55, from 1955, is one of the most important products in Sony’s history. It was the first transistor radio to be made in Japan, it pioneered the use of printed circuit boards, and was the first product to introduce the Sony brand.
1957’s TR-63 was the world’s smallest transistor radio and has the distinction of being Sony’s first exported product. Sony claims to have coined the term “pocketable” for it.
Soni-Tape 1950, the first magnetic recording tape in Japan. Also the first in a long, long, long line of storage formats developed by Sony.
One of Sony’s earliest products is also one of its most unusual. In 1949, Japan’s Imperial Household Agency requested that Sony develop an intercom for the emperor and empress to use inside the palace, and this elegant sphere is what the company came up with.