Tokyo Thrift: the Sony Rolly was peak Sony


When I talk about peak Sony, I'm not, of course, referring to the Sony that took over the world with products like the Walkman and the PlayStation. No, the Sony that made the Rolly is that Sony’s twisted, lovable alter-ego. And the Rolly is that side of the company’s ultimate creation.

I will attempt to describe the Rolly in as straightforward and sober a way as I can, because that’s actually the best way to explain just how weird it was. The Rolly was a “sound entertainment player” the size and shape of a goose egg. It had 1GB of storage, one button, two arms, two colorful glowing LED rings, and the ability to roll around and dance on your desk. Playback controls were mostly handled by shaking the device or spinning its wheels. You could choreograph your own dance moves with complex Sony software. It came out in 2007 and cost $400.

Tokyo Thrift is a new 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.

What was Sony thinking? Well, I can’t imagine the company expected the Rolly to be a massive hit — it was just too wild and expensive. Instead, it’s of a piece with AIBO and Sony’s other more outlandish creations that showed the company flex its engineering muscle. It is, after all, pretty cool, at least if you let go of any reasonable preconceptions you may have about sane product planning. And if you squint, the Rolly was almost ahead of its time — is it really all that different to the BB-8 Sphero every Star Wars geek wanted under their Christmas tree last year?

"Ahead of its time" does not mean anything close to "is a viable product in 2016," however, thanks to the notoriously backwards approach to software espoused by Sony in the 2000s. The Rolly only works with the proprietary Sonic Stage application to transfer music in the right format, and in the case of my Rolly — which I should point out I bought used for about $80 — only works with the Japanese version of Windows XP. This should have been less of a problem for me than most, but after a fruitless search for the power cable to my 2008 Toshiba netbook and a couple of hours attempting to create virtual installations, I had to admit defeat ahead of deadline.

'80s hits with sony rolly

A video posted by sam byford (@345triangle) on

No matter, I thought — the Rolly uses Bluetooth, so I could at least use it to play music and dance with its canned routines. Except I couldn’t get any device, including a Sony PSP from 2009, to pair with it. That left me with the music loaded by the Rolly’s previous owner, which is to say that I now have a dancing light-up music player that is exclusively capable of playing "Africa" by Toto, "Eternal Flame" by the Bangles, "Let’s Groove" by Earth, Wind & Fire, and nothing else. Cool. (It also isn’t a very good speaker, in case you were wondering.)

sony rolly

If the Rolly came out today, all of this would just be handled through a mobile app. The Rolly also probably wouldn’t cost $400. But it wouldn’t attain the semi-legendary status it has today, either, because it’d be just another smartphone-connected gadget. I love the Rolly because it has so much personality, and it shows Sony at the absolute height of its willingness to throw unhinged ideas into the market with little regard for practical, technical, or financial concerns.

And let’s not forget — some people really, truly loved the product itself! There’s still a community of people who painstakingly program their own dance routines. Just look at this kind of mind-blowing "Gangnam Style" video. Or this unreal performance where three synced Rollys dance to "Beat It."

Anyone can put a far-out tech concept onto Kickstarter these days. But less than a decade ago, Sony was our best bet for scratching that itch — and the products actually showed up on store shelves first. So yes, the Rolly was ridiculous, but it deserves respect too. It was peak gadget, and peak Sony.

Control BB-8 with Sphero’s new Star Wars watch

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