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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

January 5, 2015 at 5:07 PM

CES: Sony strikes back

LAS VEGAS — Sony may be the limping Colossus of the consumer electronics industry, but it usually puts on a great show at CES with its Consumer Electronics Show opening night news conference today.

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After reporting a loss of $1.2 billion in its latest quarterly financial report and then facing global humiliation over hacking attacks and the mishandling of its movie “The Interview,” the company warmed up the audience with a press release crowing about the huge success of its PlayStation 4 console over the holidays.

But while it unveiled some fun new products, the presentation lacked the flash and glamour of its star-studded events in years past.

Instead, the company talked seriously about its efforts to restore profitability while leading new categories such as ultra high-definition video.

PlayStation is one of its bright spots. The company sold 4 million consoles during the holiday season, bringing total sales of the platform to 18.5 million and cementing its lead in the current generation of consoles.

Kazuo Hirai, the company’s president and chief executive, took the stage and acknowledged the elephant in the room, saying it would be remiss if he didn’t mention “The Interview,” the comedy from Sony Pictures that depicted the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Then Hirai thanked employees for their hard work during the fiasco.

“Freedom of speech, freedom of expression … those are very important lifebloods of Sony,” he said.

“By the way ‘Annie’ is also a great movie as well,” he added.

Hirai then sprinkled product announcements through a speech filled with talk of Sony’s efforts to improve its business.

To continue its turnaround, Sony must deliver not just innovative products, but products that “satisfy a deeper, emotional” response, Hirai said.

Hirai talked about Sony’s PlayStation video-streaming service, which debuts this quarter. He then shifted to automotive, saying that Sony expects to be a leader in providing sensors to cars in the coming years.

Following up on last year’s announcement of a projection system that displays 4K video content on walls and windows, Hirai said a portable version is coming soon. The company just began selling home setups of its “short throw” 4K projector in New York in September.

New this year is the “Symphonic Light Speaker,” a combination speaker and lamp that generates “an ambience of light and sound that feels right at home in your living space,” he said.

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Hirai talked up the success of Sony movies like “22 Jump Street” and music artists such as Pharrell Williams, and noted that the company is now shooting movies and TV shows in ultrahigh definition 4K resolution.

That may help the company sell the new line of 4K TVs, including 10 new models with a new “X1” picture processor. The TVs are also powerful enough to run Google’s Android TV operating system with voice controls through their remote controls. Apps will be available to control the sets and share content from phones and smart watches.

The sets have a new interface with a horizontal menu of apps and content that appears across the bottom of the display.

Sony’s new flagships TVs are the XBR X900C and 910C models. At 0.2 inches thick, they are thinner than Sony’s Xperia smartphones. Models from 55-inches to 75-inches diagonal go on sale this spring. Prices were not disclosed.

From the side, these TV displays aren’t much thicker than a sheet of household glass. But they have a bulge in the lower back to contain the electronics so the pane won’t lie completely flat against a wall.

Also helping to move 4K sets this year will be Netflix. Greg Peters, the company’s chief streaming officer, came on stage at Sony’s event to talk up the new TVs. Netflix on the new sets will provide “almost instantaneous” responsiveness, he said.

After adding 4K content over the last year, Netflix in 2015 will offer Sony TV owners content with high dynamic range — an increased spectrum of brightness, Peters said.

Sony also is offering ways for people to produce their own 4K content. The company announced a new version of its 4K handycam video recorder that’s 30 percent smaller, 20 percent lighter and 50 percent cheaper — 4K for $1K.

The company also unveiled a 4K version of its “action cam” mountable on bikes, helmets and other sports gear. Skateboarder Tony Hawk provided a demo video of him skiing and skating with the device, then came on stage to pitch it in person and mention that he’s working on a new game for the PlayStation 4.

Sony plans to sell the Action Cam 4K for about $500, or $600 if bundled with a remote LCD viewfinder.

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On the audio front, Sony talked about a new format called Hi-Res Audio, which will be supported by a new Sony Walkman music player and home audio gear. The hardware will upscale MP3 music using Sony’s “digital sound enhancement engine” and support the “LDAC” audio coding technology.

Consumers may not be enthused about a new batch of audio standards for digital music, but Sony has major labels Warner Music and Universal Music on board.

Perhaps the new audio formats will make smart watches more appealing. Sony announced that it’s preparing to release the third version of its SmartWatch, including versions with a steel case and an interchangeable band.

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