#interview – Xperia Z1 developers

We sat down recently with a few of the brains behind Xperia Z1 to talk about how our flagship smartphone came to be – product planner, Asuka  Matsumura; designer, Keita Hibi; material and finish designer, Nami Katayama; Sony DI camera engineer, Nobuyuki  Matsushita; Sony Mobile camera engineer, Kenichi Kamezaki; experience planner, Ryoko Amano and display engineer, Fumiyuki Ito.

It’s a highly extensive piece, covering: design, inspiration, creative back-story, standout features… so, enjoy.

Sony’s signature OmniBalance aesthetic

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Building on the concept of Xperia Z (launched in the spring of 2012), Xperia Z1 realises a substantial evolution…

Matsumura: With Xperia Z1 we were working to create a device that goes beyond the traditional bounds of a smartphone. People expect this of a modern mobile device, but we wanted to go beyond expectations and develop something that provoked sheer wonderment. By that, we mean that the smartphone has to become part of the user’s life without making them compromise. Whether it is being in awe of the camera’s ability to capture memories in low light or being unable to take eyes off that familiar image because it looks just as remembered – that is what these technologies really mean.

 Xperia Z1; finely honed “OmniBalance design”

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“The seamless one-piece aluminum frame of Xperia Z1 has a hole in the center of the plate. While this is a mass-produced component, it takes a machining process equivalent to that of a standalone product.” (Katayama)

Hibi: OmniBalance design is all about creating smartphones that balance competing requirements, so for example in Xperia Z1 we wanted to create a smartphone that was equally comfortable both upright and horizontal, with no real centre of gravity. Another example of OmniBalance would be to talk about how we balance form and functionality. Aluminium normally limits mobile signal, but with Xperia Z1, we were able to use the one-piece aluminium frame to act as an antenna – so we were balancing the aesthetic requirement for a seamless premium casing, with the functional necessity for a mobile antenna.

Katayama: Another example would be the coating we used on the frame. It was treated using a process called “double amlumite” treatment – this both protects and colours the outer frame whilst making it clearly distinguishable (and balanced) from the glossy flat surfaces.

Expressive, over functional?

The word aluminum connotes solidity, something synonymous with metal. However, Xperia Z1 appears both streamlined, and rounded from different angles. How did you create this unique look?

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“The corners of the frame and the edges connected to them are completely round, which is possible only with the aluminum cutting process. This is one of the key components of the OmniBalance design and makes the phone fit comfortably in the palm when the user holds it. ” (Hibi)

Hibi: By shaping aluminum material, we were able to create a three-dimensional shape of the aluminum frame just as we imagined it. With plastic parts, it’s more difficult to create single custom shapes, as many molding processes use dyes. With an aluminum “cutting” process, we can carve the outline precisely – this allowed us to give Xperia Z1 a solid, clean-cut appearance, with four completely round edges. I think that these rounded, smooth edges are an integral part of Xperia Z1’s identity.

Katayama: For colouring, we used “double alumite treatment” in the aluminum frame. Alumite treatment employs a chemical reaction to protect the surface of aluminum material against oxidization (rust) and allows precise colouring on a micron basis. Without using aluminum, it would have been impossible to create a seamless blend of distinct colours and textures, whilst keeping the colour tone sharp. The frame of the white model, which takes advantage of the aluminum’s “original” colour, underwent two different processes – sand blasting to degloss material with fine particles, and the smoothening so the material retains a gloss finish. This makes the edges of the phone different from the flat surfaces – I think we succeeded in creating a striking two-tone, two-colour finish!

Hibi: Aluminum is a robust material, so it’s suitable for use in a device that you carry around every day. It is also possible to pursue quality in terms of texture and forming accuracy. Not only does the aluminum frame encasing Xperia Z1 play an integral part as the antenna, but it is used for ornamental purposes as well.

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“Usually, the shape suitable for a waterproof headphone jack is oval. But, from a design perspective, we thought it should be circular. So we asked members of the department in charge again and again to make the headphone jack look completely circular in shape when viewed from the outside.” (Hibi)

Adopting a frame made of machined aluminum is both functional, and provides industrial beauty only unusually seen in high-end cameras. Pick up an Xperia Z1 phone andfeel the OmniBalance design, with the texture of the aluminum frame. The consistent form is immediately recognizable as “Xperia”, as “Sony”.

Sony’s hallmark camera technologies in Xperia Z1

Xperia Z1 features the 1/2.3-inch “Exmor RS for mobile” sensor and the Sony G Lens™ with a bright F2.0 aperture, which gives it a high level of sensitivity comparable to that of the latest compact digital cameras.

Blending the cultures and minds of two development teams to redefine the “smartphone camera”

Kamezaki: The camera in Xperia Z1 is designed to move beyond  conventional smartphone imaging capability, so that users can create the kind of beautiful shots that will preserve moments and memories. To do this we had to go right back to basics with our smartphone camera design…

Matsushita: I was amazed by how fast paced the mobile design process was; with requirements changing constantly. We were able to merge the two design cultures very well, and find a way of working that allowed us to experiment , but collaborate productively within that rapid-pace environment. Ultimately, we created something unique, and to hear that the fruit of our work created “the best overall image quality of all leading smartphones” was immensely satisfying.

Sony’s “Smart Social Camera” – Xperia Camera applications

In addition to capturing memories, Xperia Z1 offers Xperia camera apps through Sony’s “Smart Social Camera” platform, including “Social live” for broadcasting video live to Facebook, and “AR effect” to overlay fun moving objects on whatever might be in front of the viewfinder.

Amano: We see a smartphone camera as more than just a way of capturing photos. We wanted to create a new, different camera experience – our effort to develop new camera applications began when we asked ourselves, “What kind of camera experience could we create for smartphones by combining Xperia smartphone tech with Sony’s digital imaging innovation?” The result: “Info-eye™” works in conjunction with the search function to let you not just see but learn at the same time. “Timeshift burst” records a number of images in two seconds – a second before and after pressing the shutter – to ensure you capture special moments. We had many, many (often crazy!) ideas that we kept in mind for years, wondering how or if they might be possible. We considered and implemented these ideas one by one, during the creation process.

Combining a smartphone with a camera drastically changes the way we enjoy photos – “Social live”, lets you share moments with friends; they can enjoy an event via streamed video to Facebook, and join the experience by posting comments. This kind of thinking is very much where I expect the future of smartphone photography lies – the  inclusive, shared and preserved.

Beauty, and depth of image delivered by “X-Reality for mobile” and “TRILUMINOS Display for mobile”

 Ito: “X-Reality for mobile” builds on the advances made by “Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2.” This used four technologies for noise reduction, contrast enhancement, colour management, and sharpness, and the super resolution technology in X-Reality is similar. It employs the same mechanism featured in recent BRAVIA TVs and optimizes the image quality for the kind of close up viewing that we expect in Xperia Z1. The technology analyzes images frame by frame, guesses and compensates for missing information resulting from image data compression or other processing.z1_14

Patterns of such image processing are stored in a database, and an optimal pattern is chosen from the database for a specific type of image, such as a movie or animation. This allows an adjusted image to be displayed on the screen instantaneously, which, if done manually, would take several days.

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Fumiyuki Ito

Ito: “X-Reality for mobile” offers a great foundation for imaging but we knew from the start that the real beauty of images cannot be delivered by hardware alone. Producing beautiful images is impossible without tuning the image quality in terms of colour and sharpness. In the initial stage of development, we held a meeting attended by not just members working on Xperia but also engineers in charge of Sony’s image-related products – PlayStation, BRAVIA, and Cyber-shot. At this meeting, we discussed how the different quality adjustment technologies could be used to individually optimise certain use cases (video / gaming / camera etc…) and as a result we created a set of guidelines on image quality adjustment defining how we could approach this. Xperia Z1 is the first smartphone model developed under those guidelines.

Ito (cont’d): “TRILUMINOS Display for mobile” creates a wider palette of rich colours than can be represented in TV broadcasts, making it possible to express the depth of a bright blue sky or the softness of a ripe fruit stereoscopically. When I first saw images on Xperia Z1, they were so impressive that I couldn’t help but let out a gasp of astonishment. Through our collaboration, using both hardware and software, we’ve created new unique proprietary technologies – this is a real achievement and testament to the vision we set out on for Xperia Z1.

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