A Conversation with Kazuo Hirai

For Kaz Hirai, the president and CEO of Sony Corporation, the last inch to the consumer is where the greatest opportunity for differentiation exists.

“Everything is in the cloud — music, movies, all kinds of content today. But until we’re able to telepathically send and receive, we’ll need devices to transmit that content that last inch,” said Hirai at the 2017 USC Global Conference in Tokyo, Japan.

And it’s in that last inch that companies like Sony have to deliver a differentiable experience. For Hirai, that experience is best expressed by “kando” — a Japanese term that roughly translates to emotional involvement or the ability to stimulate an emotional response.

Sony CEO Kaz Hirai at the USC Global Conference in Tokyo (USC Photo: Daiki Suzuki)

“Kando is that sense of wonder and ‘wow’ that moves people when they experience something that touches them deeper,” said Hirai.

Hirai was featured in a conversation with Elizabeth Daley, dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, during the opening plenary for the University of Southern California’s biennial leadership conference.

In a wide-ranging discussion about the role that companies like Sony play in enhancing the consumer experience, they explored how technology enables not only new ways to tell stories, but also provides practical applications that have the ability to fundamentally change the world.

Virtual reality (VR), an emerging technology with enormous potential beyond the gaming applications that have driven much of its initial momentum, provides significant opportunities when combined with other uses of the technology. Researchers are exploring the use of VR for therapies to benefit patients with dementia and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as working with children on the autism spectrum. VR also works well for on the job training in a controlled environment.

“As a platform holder, we have a responsibility to do VR right, and that includes practical applications as well as entertainment,” said Hirai.

Elizabeth Daily, Dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, at the USC Global Conference plenary session with Kaz Hirai (USC Photo: Daiki Suzuki)

Dean Daley credited Sony Playstation for delivering a VR experience that keeps the technology viable and alive while the industry is trying to develop other applications that leverage the full range of capabilities.

Likewise, artificial intelligence (AI) will be an integral part of the consumer experience going forward. It is already being used in applications that enhance our lives, such as playlists on Spotify based on songs we already like and listen to. But when AI is combined with image sensing technology — such as those built into cameras — you have the foundation for great factory automation opportunities.

This focused approach on new technologies like VR and AI is encompassed by Sony’s corporate ethos built around a commitment to customer feedback. Engineers can’t build products for themselves. They have to get input from actual customers at every step of the way to develop products that consumers actually want.

Sony has worked closely with the USC School of Cinematic Arts to understand the needs of cinematographers and other visual storytellers as they develop the next generation of cameras and other image capture equipment. In addition to coming to the school for input, the company sponsors 12 students every summer for internships within Sony, so they can explore VR and other technologies in the context of their academic experience.

Understanding the limitations of the technology is as important as recognizing the benefits. According to Hirai, you can’t play a VR game for six hours like you can on a flat 2D screen. The technology simply doesn’t lend itself to that experience. An important part of the continued development of VR technologies is to find the applications that leverage its strengths, in spite of its limitations.

Every product has a functional value that can be described on the product sheet, as well as an emotional value, which is where consumers really connect with the product. The functional value is the commoditized part of the consumer electronics industry. The emotional value is the point of differentiation; the place where you have the ability to inspire, to get the customer to say, “Wow!” — the kando moment.

Hirai closed the session with his own kando moment. He projected a black-and-white image of himself laughing as a child while his father played back a recording of him giggling while he was being tickled. The antiquated Sony tape recorder clearly visible in the image played an important role in a child’s experience of wonder at hearing himself, with no understanding of the coincidence that he would grow up to be CEO of the company that made the tape recorder. Wow.