Sony Plans Software Subscription Future With Image Sensors

In May, Sony revealed the first two models of its intelligent vision sensors, which the company described as the world’s first image sensors with integrated AI processors. Now, the company plans a major shift from hardware sales to “software by subscription” for data-analyzing image sensors on location. The move reflects Sony’s effort to move to a model based on recurring revenue. At Sony Semiconductor Solutions, senior general manager Hideki Somemiya noted that AI-enabled analysis of such data will form “a market larger than the growth potential of the sensor market itself in terms of value.”

Reuters reports that the sensor software “can be modified or replaced wirelessly without disturbing the camera.” Its uses include being “installed in security cameras where it can single out factory workers not wearing helmets, for instance, or be mounted in vehicles to monitor driver drowsiness.” Users can subscribe to the software via monthly fees or licensing, “much like how gamers buy a PlayStation console and then pay for software or subscribe to online services.”

Sony hasn’t stated when the service will launch. With regard to image sensors, Sony will compete with Samsung and China-owned OmniVision Technologies, “but analysts said a 52 percent market share gives Sony a competitive edge.”

U.S. hedge fund Third Point, a minority investor, “continues to push Sony to spin off the image sensor division, saying its value could be higher if it was not masked by the complexity of the company.” Sony chief executive Kenichiro Yoshida said that, “keeping the division in house gives it easier access to group resources” and that “diversity is the company’s strength.”

JPMorgan Securities analyst Junya Ayada noted that, “Sony will focus on profit growth with diversified businesses,” adding that it “reported two consecutive years of record profit through March 2019.” Waseda University Business School professor Atsushi Osanai said that, “the next big thing for sensors may be in self-driving technology, but it’s important to explore other applications.”

Fierce Electronics reports that Sony VP of business and technology innovation Mark Hanson stated that, “our thinking was that if we could tackle the things that complicate the process at the edge, we will improve time-to-market for the customer at a lower cost.” Sony’s IMX500 image sensor is a logical extension of its existing image sensors that utilize backside illumination.”

Its AI processing capability came from placing the logic chips on the backside of the sensor “thereby giving the sensor more pixels to improve the light sensitivity.” After a “wide bus structure carries the data from the image sensor to the image signal processor (ISP),” the IMX500 also runs the signals acquired by the pixel chip through an ISP, with AI processing done in the process stage on the logic chip.”

The extracted data is output as metadata, “reducing the amount of data handled.” Because object recognition happens “in as little as 3.1 milliseconds,” many new applications are possible. Hanson “envisions a suite of simple hardware solutions with a menu of options or use cases for the customer to choose from,” avoiding “massive customization or implementation nightmares.”

For more information on the May image sensor announcement, visit the Sony press room.