Sony sage looks into the future and sees...

comment The Sony sage who pioneered a jaw-dropping series of products--the tape recorder, the transistor radio, the portable TV, videotape recording--peeks into the crystal ball for the next big technology.

commentary TOKYO--He shuffles. And his eyes peer out from behind thick, bushy eyebrows. But those are the only two obvious concessions that Dr. Nobutoshi Kihara has made to age.

At 77, he still occupies an austere, but spacious office at the Sony-Kihara Research Center, where he presides as chairman of the board. Yes, he's the same Kihara whose name adorns the place. It speaks volumes that Kihara-san is still very much alive and working, and yet Sony saw no need to wait to honor his many achievements on the company's behalf--achievements that have made him a living legend at the company.

Kihara-san started with Sony at its founding, then served as its chief engineer for decades. He helped pioneer a jaw-dropping series of products--the tape recorder, the transistor radio, the portable TV, videotape recording, the VCR, and, oh yes, the digital camera.

Did I call them products? That understates their significance. Given the profound influence they've had on the way we live, they're more akin to cultural artifacts. And they sit, like trophies, on the bookshelves at the rear of Kihara-san's office.

I know this because I recently found myself standing in that office, along with eight journalists and analysts who'd been invited by Sony to Japan for a series of briefings.

The research center had been listed on the itinerary. But we hadn't expected to meet Kihara-san himself. Yet there we were, somewhat awestruck, finding ourselves face to face--exchanging business cards one by one--with the sage of Sony.

We were invited to asked questions. I posed this one: "Kihara-san, what's the next technology that will affect people's lives as profoundly as some of the products that now sit on your bookshelf?"

The old man thought for a moment. "That's a hard question," he said through the interpreter.

Then he offered his answer.

"Memory," he said.

Memory?

The occasion was not such that we could press for an explanation. This was an audience, not a press conference. In a different situation, we might have doggedly pursued a follow-up with the unceremonious assertiveness characteristic of journalists in a pack. But our shared sense of protocol and respect for our elders kept us at bay.

Instead, like high priests, we were left to ponder among ourselves what the oracle had just declared.

What did he mean by "memory"?

At first, I thought he might have been referring to the Memory Stick, the gumstick-sized flash memory card Sony keeps building into its products--and the company's proprietary entry into the increasingly confusing array of removable media choices. Kihara's declaration might explain why Sony has so stubbornly promoted a technology that could wind up as failed a format as Betamax. If someone of his stature believes Memory Stick has a future, well, it has a future.

But perhaps I was being too literal. Even in the unlikely event that the Memory Stick succeeds to become a standard, it's still not the kind of thing that changes the world--not the way the VCR did, and that, after all, was the question.

Perhaps Kihara-san was referring to the concept of portable storage in general. With prices falling and capacities growing, we keep drawing closer and closer to the era of the chip-equipped credit card--you know, the so-called "smart card" we've been hearing about for years that'll let us carry our life histories in our wallets.

Or maybe he was referring to the concept device Sony had shown us the day before: the Vaio EQ, a wearable "sensing" computer, as the researchers had described it, that would remember things for you--recording for instant reference, say, an item you bought a week, a month, or a year before, where you bought it, and for how much.

Or could he have meant that we are entering into an era of personal electronics where gadgets or robots like Sony's Aibo get to know you--really get to know you, remembering and recalling your every personal preference? Perhaps he meant none of those things. It could have simply been an off-the-cuff response from an old man caught unawares. But I doubt it. His tidy presence spoke of a life and mind still very much in command of itself. Plus, I suspect Kihara-san would be very pleased with all the speculation his utterance has inspired.

This is, after all, a man who took great pride in forcing himself and his engineers to forget common sense, which he saw not as a foundation to innovation but as an impediment to it.

So I choose to believe that he meant all of the above, that we are on a step-by-step evolution that will continue to supplement and, eventually, to replicate human memory. Think of your hard drive and how its capacities have miraculously grown even as its price has fallen. Think of tiny flash cards that can contain as much data as an entire hard drive could just a few short years ago.

Scientists have already postulated that, with a terabyte of storage, we could store a meaningful subset of everything we've ever read, watched, or heard. It's really not hard to imagine that all of it will one day fit on something the size of a credit card.

Imagine: You could preserve and share memories of movies, books, or events in vivid and substantial detail. Every life could become a library collection, the digital equivalent of a Ken Burns documentary.

It could come to pass, putting "memory," as Kihara-san certainly must have meant it, on the shelf with the transistor radio, the VCR, and the digital camera.