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Sony at CES: PlayStation Now, 'Breaking Bad' and the 'wow' factor

Sony's CEO Kasua Hirai excites fans with two new cloud-based services during his keynote Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show. He also bids farewell to the "just good enough era."

Sony CEO Kasuo Hirai took the stage to deliver a keynote speech at CES 2014. James Martin/CNET

Sony will use the power of the Internet "cloud" to engage its customers in a new way that the company hopes will create a sense of awe in their experience of Sony products, CEO Kasuo Hirai said during a keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Tuesday.

During the keynote, Andrew House, president and group CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment, took the stage briefly to make the two biggest announcements of the keynote: Sony's plans to offer a new streaming game service and cloud-based TV service via the company's popular PlayStation 4 game console.

The new PlayStation Now is a streaming game service that will allow PlayStation fans to stream games directly to their PlayStation 4 consoles or mobile devices. One of the highlights of the new service is that it will allow people to access games from previous PlayStation generation consoles, including games from the PS1, PS2 and PS3.

The service will begin a closed beta testing trial at the end of January with the service expected to be rolled out to customers this summer, House said.

House also announced a new cloud-based TV service that will allow people to access and watch live and recorded TV as well as on-demand content from streaming services like Netflix. Sony has yet to name the new service, but House said it will begin testing the service this year in the US.

Sony's cloud-based video service will put the company head-to-head with companies like Roku and Apple. And it's ground that other companies have also tried to cover but failed. For instance, Intel talked up similar plans to launch its own cloud-based TV service, but ultimately abandoned those plans.

Where Sony likely believes it can stand out from others who are either already in the streaming market or have attempted and failed to get there is that Sony has a large installed base of customers.

House said during the presentation that the PS4 launch was the largest console launch ever with Sony selling 2.1 million consoles in the first two weeks. The company ended the year by selling 4.2 million units.

The figure beats Microsoft's Xbox One sales as of the end of 2013. Microsoft said it sold 3 million units by the end of December.

Sony PlayStation Now
Sony exec Andrew House introduces the PlayStation Now service at CES 2014. James Martin/CNET

'Kando' and the 'wow' factor
Hirai began his keynote by talking about his childhood and his lifelong ambition to figure out how things work. He said that the same concept of curiosity and imagination has been part of Sony's history for the past 60 years. He highlighted some iconic devices made by the company including the Walkman, the DiscMan and the PlayStation. He also noted some of the company's commercial failures, including the Betamax video player.

But he said that at the center every successful product is this notion of Kando, a Japanese concept of eliciting emotional involvement with a product. Even though the Betamax video player had functionally superior technology over the more commercially successful VHS technology, he implied that the product lacked an emotional connection for consumers.

He said it isn't enough to make products that are simply functional. Consumers need more than that to connect with a product.

"People value that elusive deeper emotional power," he said.

Kando, he explained, is what offers a "wow" experience for consumers. It dazzles and amazes them. He said kando happens when your senses are engaged. And it's not just the experience that the device brings that is supposed to elicit this response, but the device itself has to conjure this emotion of excitement and wonder. He emphasized that today, all of Sony's products are inspired by this notion of "kando."

He rattled off a litany of Sony products from its latest smartphone -- the Xperia Z1S -- to its PlayStation 4 console to the 5000 ILCE-5000 -- a digital camera with an interchangeable lens -- to its advanced sensor technology that he says brings kando to life in a variety of applications.

"We don't consider any product a success if we don't deliver the 'wow' experience and kando," he said. "And we are spending more time looking out rather than looking within to see what's on the horizon."

Hirai called the next generation of consumers "Generation Remix." And he said they are different from previous generations because they have grown up as visual and digital natives, knowing from their earliest experiences to interact with touch screens and connected devices. And he said this next generation of consumers will bend technology instead of being controlled by it. And he said it will be up to Sony engineers and product designers to figure out what will wow them.

'Breaking Bad'
In an effort to show more concretely how Sony's technology and vision has already changed industries, like entertainment, Hirai invited Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton and "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan to the stage for a discussion. Lynton and Gilligan offered their insights on how streaming video services have changed the TV and movie industry forever.

Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO, Michael Lynton and "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan join Sony CEO Kasuo Hirai on stage during Hirai's keynote at CES 2014. CNET/James Martin

"When I started in the TV business, the conventional wisdom was serialized storytelling was to be avoided," Gilligan said. He said that has now changed. And now people are watching shows all at once right after another in what has been coined binge-viewing."That phrase didn't even exist four or five years ago," he said.

Mobile devices have also changed the way people view movies and TV shows, Lynton said. People can now catch up on TV and movies while on a train or waiting for a bus.

Gilligan also noted how the size of TVs has also changed how TV shows are produced.

"With the giant wide TVs, you can frame scenes like a John Ford or Sergio Leone," he said. "You can show little characters on a broad endless, expanse of the New Mexico prairie and it looks cinematic."

Gilligan also noted that the new miniature cameras that Sony makes allows him to capture shots he'd never dreamed before. For example, he said cameras can be placed in mailboxes or one could be underneath Walter White's car as he rolls past. Not only are the quality of the cameras amazing, but they are also inexpensive, which he said means that they can be used in a lot of situations that directors otherwise would never consider.

"We can risk breaking them," he said Gilligan."So if it comes down to a choice between a $300 camera and a million dollar shot, I'll break the camera every day of the week."

Sony's 4K projector
Hirai concluded the keynote with the introduction of a short-range 4K projector, which can project a 147-inch image at extremely close range. The projector is designed to sit right in front of a wall or screen, instead of being placed several feet away. Hirai didn't offer pricing information but said the product will be available this summer. It is part of a wider family of products known as Life UX. An initiative that turns every surface in the home into a screen.

Sony CEO Kasuo Hirai talks up the company's Life Space UX initiative during his keynote at CES 2014. CNET/James Martin

Hirai said that Life Space UX will soon free the office, home, and other places we use from traditional constraints to deliver a kando experience. And finally he ended with some inspirational words for the audience.

"It's time to move beyond the just good enough era," he said.

He added that it was time to say good-bye to commodity products.

"We must empower our creators, designers, engineers, to be curious," he said. "Products created with pride will instill pride of ownership."