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Sony Is All Ears at Virtual CES

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While major consumer electronics brands LG, Hisense, Samsung, and Panasonic concentrated their CES 2021 messaging on smart fridges, smarter vehicles, and tech for the coronavirus era, Sony stood out with its emphasis on media and entertainment production.

Its main announcement was launch of an audio mixing tool that could give producers and directors a better means of sharing in the final audio reviews remotely. Fine-tuning the sound mix on commercials, TV, or film productions was a client-attend fixture pre-COVID, but the creative to and fro under remote conditions has been hampered since no party can be sure they are hearing the exact same thing.

Sony’s 360 virtual mixing environment (VME) "is a mind-blowing tech that can reproduce in a pair of headphones the same sound mixed by professionals in a studio," said Bill Baggelaar, EVP and CTO of technology development for Sony Pictures Entertainment in a video. Sony Pictures’ Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Venom: Let There be Carnage have been the first to try out the technology, which replicates the speakers of a sound stage in any location and supports 5.1, 7.1, and Dolby Atmos mixes.

"You are truly fooling your brain into thinking you are in the other environment," Baggelaar told The Hollywood Reporter.

The 360 VME was developed by Sony Electronics' R&D team in Tokyo working with the studio’s Innovation and Sound Services departments in Culver City.

360 Music and Video Streaming

For consumers, Sony has expanded its 360 Reality Audio services, including adding new video streaming capabilities and content creation tools. Introduced in 2019, 360 Reality Audio makes it possible for artists and creators to produce music by mapping sound sources such as vocals, chorus, and instruments with positional information and placing them within a spherical space. It is intended to evoke feelings of being in a music studio or live concert venue.

Live video performances have now been added to the sound. To showcase that, artist Zara Larsson debuted an exclusive live performance yesterday. Viewers were able to stream the performance with the Artist Connection app on a smartphone. With select Sony headphones and an app, users can have their individual ear shape analyzed to enjoy a custom immersive musical field.

Sony said artists on its label and others will begin streaming new video content later this year. Additionally, Sony is partnering with other CE companies to promote the 360 Reality Audio experience.

The headphones landscape has experienced phenomenal growth over the last decade and as a result, headphones are becoming the fastest-selling personal electronic device on the market, according to Futuresource Consulting. Headphones and true wireless devices are expected to grow to over 700 million in five years’ time.

Chris Havell, senior director of product marketing, voice & music at Qualcomm Technologies, believes that there are still numerous improvements to be made, with immersive audio quality, microphone audio quality, and protecting listener health being of key importance. In addition to this, consumers are now gaming and watching movies more using headsets. This means that audio quality has to be delivered with low latency. Havell says implementing these features into standard headphone products for consumers is now important.

UAV for Cinematography

Sony teased launch of its new AirPeak drone development late year and at CES 2021 has put more flesh, though not the full monty, on the brand.

"Today, we're going to introduce a product that integrates AI and robotics, designed for adventurous creators," CEO Kenichiro Yoshida said in a video.

The drone is designed to carry Sony's own imaging technology—specifically the Alpha series of mirrorless camera. Sony said it's going to be the smallest drone on the market that can be equipped with its cameras, which means full-frame aerial photography and video.

AirPeak is targeted at "professional photography and video production" and will launch in the first half of this year. Sony also said that this would be "the first phase of this project" perhaps hinting that a consumer version will follow.

In Sony's teaser video, the drone is shown following a prototype Sony Vision-S concept electric car at a race track.  Whatever Sony plans, it is chasing a market that analyst firm IDC estimated as $16.3 billion pre-pandemic and that, on the consumer front, is cornered by Chinese firm DJI.

Cognitive TV

At CES2021, Sony also debuted what it is calling the world's first cognitive intelligence televisions. The smarts for this are contained in a new type of image processor, the Cognitive Processor XR, which surveys the entire frame in real time, breaking down specific zones to concentrate on—such as realistic skin tone—as a way to mimic how our brains process images. This is supposed to also aid the TVs' 8K performance and will feature in new Bravia XR LED and OLED TVs.

"While conventional artificial intelligence can only detect and analyze picture elements like color, contrast, and detail individually, the new processor can cross-analyze an array of elements at once, just as our brains do," the company said in its press release. A "Sound-from-Picture Reality" feature in the processor can "align the position of the sound with the images on the screen to offer a uniquely lifelike experience."

The Consumer Technology Association predicts that by 2024, half of the sales for 65" and larger displays will be 8K and that wholesale prices of 8K sets will drop by about half ($1500) in the next three years, following the trend of previous HD and 4K devices. However, 8K display sales face considerable price competition from 4K UHD sets in similar size segments in the next year or two.

Virtual Set Displays

Sony plans to sell modular "virtual set" displays similar to those used by ILM, Disney, and Epic Games to create The Mandalorian. There are two versions of the screens, a C- and B- series with the latter developed with Sony Pictures specifically for use as a studio backdrop without showing reflections. The C-Series is intended for outdoor signage installation or showrooms. Both displays are modular and use the same processing as Sony TVs, with the ability to handle HDR, 120 fps, and 3D video sources.

According to Sony, "these displays are capable of high frame rates and 3D, so the there's a lot of flexibility in what kind of signal you can feed them." Sony plans to release the product in the summer; no price has been revealed.

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