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Convergence Wars

With just 32 researchers in all (including four at a branch lab in Paris that specializes in human cognition), the CSL is a tiny outfit. Nonetheless, CSL’s vision, products and graduates are playing a key role in Sony’s digital transformation. “The CSL is like a pipe,” according to Doi, who is now the lab’s chairman. He counts four laboratories now headed by CSL members or alumni, including his own Digital Creatures Laboratories, which produced the robot dog Aibo. “Today,” Doi laughs, “Sony research is occupied by CSL graduates!”

Unlike the situation at PARC, a steady stream of CSL ideas are now making themselves felt where it counts-in the market. One example: Sony’s ultra-slim VAIO notebook computer is a huge hit in Japan in part because of NaviCam, a key differentiating concept developed at CSL in 1997 by Rekimoto. NaviCam, a tiny built-in digital CCD camera above the notebook’s screen, captures video images that can be edited and transmitted as e-mail over the Internet. NaviCam grew out of Rekimoto’s idea for an advanced type of human-computer interaction in which computers would be aware of people; in development, the concept was transformed into “personal video,” a blend of AV and IT technologies that satisfied Sony’s desire “to promote the computer for more entertainment-oriented uses.”

Perhaps the best example of CSL’s impact on its parent is the lab’s oldest project, the Aperios operating system. After an incubation of six years, Aperios was transferred out of CSL in 1996, together with four or five of its developers, including group leader Akikazu Takeuchi, a 45-year-old former Mitsubishi Electric researcher. Takeuchi now heads a corporate software lab called the Sony Suprastructure Center responsible for home networking and operating system development.

Aperios is a “real-time, object-oriented OS with a reflexive architecture”-a mouthful that means it is particularly good at handling high-speed video and audio streams. It’s this ability that lets Aibo track and intercept the bright pink ball it’s sold with, and also what’s led Sony to place Aperios at the vanguard of the strategy to conquer the home network.

Sony has begun pushing Aperios as the OS for a new generation of TV set-top boxes that are allowing cable companies to deliver hundreds of new channels, as well as interactive services such as Internet access, video-on-demand and games. In May, Sony began selling a set-top box called Plus Media Station in Japan; in October it announced plans to supply New York’s Cablevision Systems with set-tops for its rollout of digital cable to 3.5 million subscribers in and around New York, Boston and Cleveland.

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