Special report: inside Panasonic's Tokyo gadget paradise

The Feedster

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Jun 26, 2007
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For some reason Matsushita is a company that has a dowdy image that’s way off kilter with what it actually does. Sony, Nintendo and plenty of others seem way cooler somehow, but why?
It’s probably to do with the name – the brand name Panasonic is actually far better known than the parent company Matsushita, which confuses matters somewhat. Come October, that won’t matter, as the company is going Panasonic all over and Matsushita will disappear forever.
Beside the seaside
Putting that all aside for now, we headed to the Panasonic - see what we mean about the name? - Center (they use US English) just outside Tokyo to see what the mixed-up company is doing with its time and we weren’t disappointed.
The bay side building looks a little like a repurposed aircraft hanger, but the copious blobs of schoolchildren milling around receiving the good word from squadrons of female guides in Panasonic colours give it away for the educational forum/PR soapbox it really is.
Sidestepping the masses, we took the express elevator to an exclusive fourth-floor enclave of all things good and were immediately assaulted by a stunning video wall made up of four enormous plasma televisions.
Naturally, these were the 103-inch PDPs Panasonic made famous at CES in 2006. At six million yen apiece, the single video installation we were looking at was worth roughly £120,000, or the price of mid-range Ferarri.
Almost unbelievably, the company says it has sold over 3,000 of the sets around the world. Spokesperson Kyoko Ishii told us: “They are selling well in countries in the Middle East, where rich people use them for home theater screens. They’re also used in public areas like airports, hotels and stadiums.”
Since we’re not rich oil barons, all we got was a video explaining that Panasonic is a “manufacturing-oriented company” with over 300,000 staff around the world.
Hearing aids too
Moving swiftly on, the meat of the tour yielded some surprisingly tasty surprises – did you know that Panasonic makes some of the best and smallest hearing aids in the world? Blood sugar monitors for diabetics? Hairdryers? No – neither did we.
Slightly more useful than hair-care products based on dubious science (a stream of something called nanoe ions is supposed to make your hair shiny), a selection of advanced domestic lighting looked like it might actually make a difference.
Power-saving light bulbs that last five times longer than normal bulbs while consuming 80 per cent less power and LED lights that keep going for 20 times the normal bulb lifespan are clearly worth the extra few pennies they cost.
The most impressive lighting feature of all was actually outside the centre. Kaze Kamome, or Wind Seagull, is the name given to a fancy exterior light mast that wouldn’t look out of place in Bladerunner.
Ringing the building, the masts generate electricity from solar panels at their head and triple-blade windmills in the body of each unit. As well as lighting themselves up at night, the devices can generate power to run, for example, heating or cooking equipment after a natural disaster.
Handy robot
Moving on to possible future products, it seems Panasonic has been dabbling in robotics. The first prototype is a mechanical hand known as the Differential Shaft Mechanism Hand, or DSM-Hand for short.
Ever the altruist, Panasonic plans to develop the prototype into something that may one day replace a lost limb. As it uses differential gears instead of separate motors for each joint, the hand is light and can be made relatively cheaply.
As we found out when passing delicate objects like glasses and fruit to the hand, it has a delicate touch – sensors tell it when it is applying just the right amount of pressure to grip, but not damage, what it is touching.
Away from the R&D nuggets, the rest of the Panasonic Center is given over to the crowd-pleasing gear those school kids were bussed in to see.
The shear number of different product lines from Viera televisions, through Lumix cameras to rice cookers and washing machines underlines what the corporate talk of ‘manufacturing orientation’ means – Panasonic literally does make almost everything the modern household could need.
Home of the future
Speaking of the modern household, the final stop on our tour took us behind a velvet rope to an imagined version of a future living room. The first section of that was a home cinema packed with speakers and, of course, a jumbo Viera TV and a Panasonic Blu-ray deck.
The HD experience was undeniably stunning, but the content on show – an execrable music video – emphasises that it’s still early days for the triumphant disk format, with little material to choose from.
Watching garbage on thousands of pounds’ worth of gear reminded us of those avid hi-fi buffs who proudly show off equipment that costs more than a small car, only to flip the switch and regale all and sundry with a Dire Straits LP or worse.
Still, things took a turn for the better – or possibly even more outlandish; we’re not quite sure – in the final section, which was dominated by a gigantic video wall.
Everyone, it seems, has to have a Minority Report-style gesture interface these days and Panasonic is no exception. As the spokesperson told us, “Every home has walls, but they can always be used for more.”
“If you have money to burn and the research resources of a multinational,” she didn’t add.
Still the Digital Wall, as they called it, was impressive – whether used as a television, for email or as an entertainment centre, everything responded smoothly to being grabbed and moved around the display.
We got a particular kick out of the kids’ ‘room’ – a theme of sorts that included a virtual piano that can actually be played, a drawing pad and a basketball to bounce around the virtual environment.
The fact that the end point of our tour was something of a playground was appropriate, for that’s precisely what the Panasonic Center is – a place to poke and prod the stuff that we don’t really need in our lives, but which we secretly crave.
It may be largely about style over substance, but there’s no harm in having a little fun courtesy of what we once thought was a rather po-faced corporation, is there?
Next week, we’ll be returning to Panasonic to look at some of the things that do matter, as we run the rule over the company’s environmentally friendly eco house.