Every consumer electronics company has an R&D division constantly cooking up weird gadgets and tech that will potentially help define the future of the industry. For the most part, these devices are produced to explore the practicality of an idea and go unseen by the general public, with only a feature or two eventually finding their way into consumer goods. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Sony.
One of the most iconic names in consumer electronics also has a long history of releasing some of the most bizarre gadgets we’ve ever seen. Many seem like experiments that never should have left the lab, while others seemed too far ahead of their time to succeed. The company responsible for incredible successes like the Walkman, the Handycam, the Trinitron TV, and the PlayStation, is also behind many of the weirdest gadgets we’ve ever seen.
Here are some of its biggest head-scratchers.
Sony Rolly Robotic Rolling Wireless Speakers
What do you get when you combine an MP3 player with a built-in speaker, a rolling autonomous robot, and an egg? The Rolly, Sony’s attempt to… well… we’re not exactly sure what device Sony was trying to compete against with this creation. It wasn’t as compelling as Sony’s robotic Aibo pets, and with just six moving parts, it could do little more than dance — a generous description of its abilities — along with any song you were playing, accompanied by a multi-colour light show. It paired 2GB of memory with a $540 price tag, and despite including pre-programmed choreography for Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” the device wasn’t around long enough to even be considered one of the many MP3 players killed by Apple’s dominant iPod.
Sony Aibo ERS-220 Robotic Pet
Yes, the Aibo line of robotic pets was a weird product line for a company known for TVs and cassette players, but Aibo also represented one of the most ambitious attempts to deliver consumers the robotic sidekicks promised by science fiction. The Aibo robots were made of plastic and noisy motors and servos, but were designed to look like adorable puppies which helped make them more engaging, to the point where Japanese owners actually held funerals for the bots when they stopped working and were no longer repairable.
Except for the Sony Aibo ERS-220, which the Sony website describes as a “futuristic robo-dog.” If RoboCop had had a K-9 sidekick while out on patrol, it would have looked like the ERS-220. With red and blue LEDs all over its head (the red LEDs glowed when the ERs-220 was angry — yikes!) and a pop-up spotlight, this Aibo looked more suited for war than as part of your family.
Reporters who have spent their entire careers covering Sony’s products have a hard time remembering the Sony eVilla, and for good reason. The ill-fated internet appliance (an old term for barebones computers designed solely for internet-related tasks) took a year and a half to develop. It was released on June 14, 2001 and then pulled from shelves on Sept. 13, 2001, three months later.
Thanks to a sideways, portrait-style 15-inch CRT display, the eVilla had visual appeal, but a 266 MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, and no storage aside from a MemoryStick memory card slot made it hard for consumers to stomach its $675 price tag. Its limited capabilities, including email and web browsing, also required an additional $30/month fee, which Sony eventually fully refunded to the 150,000 consumers who actually purchased the eVilla.
Sony Aromastic Mobile Scent Dispenser
Setting its sights on the lucrative scented candle market, Sony’s Aromastic Mobile Scent Dispenser was arguably an upgrade. Instead of waiting for the scent of lavender or sandalwood to gently waft your way, the handheld device directly blasted users with one of five different essential oils available in replaceable aroma cartridges. The Aromastic was supposed to provide a midday pick-me-up for office workers struggling through a stressful day with a quick aromatherapy session, but without caffeine, did the device really stand a chance against a cup of awful break room coffee?
Sony Cybershot DSC-QX10 and QX100 Smartphone Cameras
Eight years ago, the photographic capabilities of smartphones still lagged far behind DLSRs and mirror-less options, but leaving a bulky camera at home and relying solely on your smartphone for photos was still a tantalising prospect — one that Sony tried to accelerate with the Cybershot DSC-QX10 and QX100. Both devices were standalone cameras. The $675 QX100 sported a 1-inch sensor and the $335 QX-10 a 1/2.3-inch sensor, and both had shutters, zoom buttons, and lenses all integrated into a what looked like a stubby can of soup.
They could be used on their own for photography, but that was a challenge because each camera lacked an LCD preview screen. That’s where a smartphone came into play. Both cameras could be clamped to your mobile device, and through an app and wifi connection, your smartphone would not only become a preview screen, but would have access to all the photos snapped so they could be easily shared. The cameras definitely improved the photography chops of whatever mobile device they were attached to and paired with, but in the end they were still bulky accessories to remember to pack and tote around.
Sony Mylo Portable Instant Messaging Device
Don’t mistake the Sony Mylo (short for My Life Online) for an early messaging-focused mobile phone like the Danger Hiptop (aka T-Mobile Sidekick). It was first and foremost a media player for digital videos and MP3s but with the addition of wifi connectivity and a sliding screen that revealed a full compact QWERTY keypad. Unlike the Hiptop, however, it had no cellular connectivity at all, and back in 2006, wifi hotspots weren’t exactly commonplace.
If you were lucky enough to find an internet connection, the $470 Mylo could be used to chat through Google Talk and Yahoo Messenger, surf the web using the Opera browser, and even make VoIP calls through Skype. Not requiring a mobile data plan to hop on the information superhighway was a compelling reason to opt for the Mylo, but after four years on the market, Sony quietly ushered it to the company’s expansive gadget graveyard.
Sony eMarker Radio Song Identifier
The $30 Sony eMarker is arguably the ancestor of music-recognising apps like Shazam and SoundHound. The gadget helped users figure out the name of a song they randomly heard on the radio, but without a mobile internet connection, a microphone, or an intelligent AI. Instead, you pushed a single button on the keychain-sized device, and then when you connected it to a computer later via USB, its application would leverage your location to list what songs were playing on various local radio stations at that point and time.
It was a clever solution to getting dated 2000s-era technology to recognise songs, but even 21 years ago, limiting the user to just 10 song requests at a time before having to sync the device to a computer was laughably restrictive given all it had to store was basic timestamp data.
Sony Wena Wrist Pro Smart Watch Strap
One of the biggest complaints about smartwatches, particularly from horological enthusiasts, is that they’re ugly. So instead of trying to redesign its limited smartwatch offerings to make them more aesthetically pleasing, Sony took a shot at updating traditional analogue timepieces to be smarter. Instead of cracking open a Rolex and stuffing unwanted electronics inside, Sony’s solution was to create a smart replacement strap that did everything a smartwatch could, while remaining mostly discreet and out of sight.
The Wena Wrist Pro bracelet was compatible with watches that used an 18-, 20-, or 22-millimetre strap, and hidden away in the clasp was not only a tiny OLED display capable of delivering a couple lines of text, but Bluetooth, a rechargeable battery (requiring a proprietary connector, of course), and motion sensors for fitness tracking. The Wena Wrist Pro connected to a smartphone app so it could mirror notifications to the wearer, but with a price tag starting at $600 (even more expensive than the original Apple Watch), it’s doubtful too many of these were ever spotted out in the wild.
Sony Folding Tablet P
Long before flexible OLED screens were available on consumer-level devices like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, Sony tried to make a foldable tablet using the tried-and-true technology of the time. The result was a clamshell device called the Sony Tablet P that opened to reveal side-by-side 5.5-inch LCD displays separated by a sizeable bezel that was impossible for users to ignore.
The idea itself wasn’t bad, but the Tablet P was a victim of the limits of technology back in 2011. The design meant a tablet could easily be slipped into a back pocket, and it was surprisingly lightweight given the technology inside, which included Wi-Fi, 4G, and a 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor. As with many innovative gadgets, the Tablet P was also let down by software. Running Android 3.2, Sony created a series of custom apps that took advantage of the Tablet P’s dual screens, like a video player that put a movie on one side and playback controls on the other. But the entire point of a folding tablet is taking full advantage of the larger screen it provides, and the Tablet P’s hard-to-ignore hinge made that all but impossible.
Sony D-88 Compact Discman
Sony has long excelled at miniaturising consumer electronics, and some of the last models of Walkman were barely larger than the cassette tapes they contained. With the Sony Discman D-88, the company tried to miniaturise compact disc players as well, but how easy it to travel with a portable CD player featuring a spinning plastic buzzsaw hanging out the side?
The YouTube channel Techmoan went hands-on with the D-88 a few years ago, and while it seemingly had good intentions, the execution was arguably flawed. The Discman D-88 was primarily designed to play 80mm mini CDs, which you possibly received at one point as a promotional item at a trade show, or as a fancy business card. There were truncated albums and singles released on the mini CD format, which can only hold about 24 minutes of music, but most people had an expansive library of albums on 120mm discs. The D-88 could play those too, but since it was designed with mini CDs in mind, it was physically smaller than the larger discs, and for the sake of backwards compatibility, Sony decided that spinning exposed discs was an OK compromise.
Sony SRS-LSR100 Wireless Speaker TV Remote
One of the best features of the original Roku streaming devices was a headphone jack on the wireless remotes that allowed for private listening sessions. That had to be the aspiration of Sony’s SRS-LSR100 Wireless Speaker TV Remote, but minus the privacy. Instead of streaming a TV’s audio through a pair of headphones, the $222 device pumped it through a portable speaker, so instead of cranking a TV’s volume to hear it from across the room, you could position the SRS-LSR100 next to you for a semi-private listening experience.
The generously-sized volume dial on top was a nice addition — much better than using rocker buttons to quickly turn down a TV — but it required the use of a dongle attached to the set (not ideal given how many devices want to connect to a TV, even back in 2015), and, like with many of Sony’s most peculiar gadgets, was only available in Japan.
Sony XEL-1 OLED TV
OLED TVs are plentiful and relatively affordable today, but back in 2008, when Sony released the first OLED TV to consumers, that wasn’t the case. The XEL-1 scored Sony lots of publicity for ushering in the era of OLED TVs, but at $3,359 it was incredibly expensive for a TV with an 11-inch screen, and one that wasn’t especially great.
The 3mm thick screen showed off the incredible potential of OLED display technology, but it left no room for electronics and ports, requiring the XEL-1 to be permanently tethered by an offset arm to a base where you’d find HDMI ports and other TV necessities like speakers and buttons. And while the screen featured an excellent contrast ratio with deep blacks, its colour reproduction wasn’t as stellar, and it was limited to a resolution of just 960 x 540 pixels, a quarter of the resolution of 1080p.
If there’s one failing of incredibly tiny but capable action cams like the GoPro, it’s their awful microphones capturing equally disappointing audio that can often let down a stellar moment caught on video. The Sony HDR-MV1 was never a GoPro competitor, but it fixed the problem of bad audio on tiny camcorders with a pair of stereo external microphones mounted right below the camera lens in an X-Y formation.
The HDR-MV1 was as capable as the high-quality portable recorders from companies like Roland and Zoom, but came with the added bonus of capturing video at 1080p or 720p, depending on your storage needs or what you planned to do with the footage. It filled an interesting niche as musicians started to rise to fame using social media and platforms like YouTube, but the orientation of the HDR-MV1’s screen, which couldn’t flip out, remains a bizarre choice. Not being able to see the screen while pointing the camera at one’s self meant that shooting selfie videos was problematic unless you got creative with mirrors.
Sony VAIO Mouse Talk VOIP Phone
Every major consumer electronics company has a division churning out easy-picking gadgets like mice and keyboards. But Sony even felt the need to innovate your basic desktop accessories. The Sony VAIO Mouse Talk VOIP Phone looked like a well-designed mouse (with questionable ergonomics) that would match a Sony Vaio desktop computer or laptop, but it was hiding a functional surprise.
It could be opened like an old clamshell cell phone revealing an old-school telephone form factor, complete with a speaker on one end and microphone on the other. As you’ve probably guessed, the mouse could be used to make VoIP calls through services like Skype, but with one tragic flaw. Unless you had a trackpad to fall back on, plugged in a second mouse, or were a Jedi when it came to keyboard shortcuts, during your phone call you couldn’t navigate Windows at all, making Mouse Talk problematic for business calls.
Sony Magic Link PIC-1000 Personal Digital Assistant
The film General Magic documents the rise and fall of a ‘90s-era Silicon Valley startup of the same name that many credit as having invented an iPhone-like device long before Apple started developing its game-changing smartphone. The company was made up of talented ex-Apple engineers (many of whom had worked on the original Macintosh computer) and other well-known names in the consumer electronics industry today. It also prominently features Sony, one of only a couple of companies ever to release a device running General Magic’s Magic Cap operating system: the Sony Magic Link PIC-1000 PDA.
Some believe Magic Cap and the devices that ran it were simply ahead of their time, forced to limp along on limited hardware and electronics that made the OS feel clunky and outdated. But in reality the development of Magic Cap suffered from countless delays, and issues like feature creep, where a never-ending list of ‘neat’ features and ideas resulted in missed deadlines and shipping delays.
Finally released in 1994, the Sony Magic Link PIC-1000 was a disappointment at best, and while it did offer innovative functionality like a built-in modem for sending and receiving email on the go, it wasn’t enough for the device to change the world. The upgraded Sony Magic Link PIC-2000 was released two years later, but it was saddled with a $1,200 price tag, and faced an even bigger hurdle: the arrival of the $400 Palm Computing Pilot 1000 PDA.
The Pilot 1000 worked within the limits of the technology at the time, providing a snappy user interface, reliable handwriting detection using ‘Graffiti,’ which was easy to learn, and a clever use of a sync cradle to periodically receive and send emails through a desktop computer. It wasn’t as powerful as PDAs running Magic Cap, but it was powerful enough for most users and easily pocketable. As a result, it truly ushered in the era of the personal digital assistant. Sorry, Sony.