Sony hasn’t been the subject of much good news lately with its management shake-ups and tumbling stock prices. Those who remember the days before Apple took over the world with the iPod have memories of Sony as the coolest technology label on the planet. Sony was the the company with decades of genre creating products – from the first pocketable transistor radio in the 1950s to the iconic Walkman portable music player that helped define 1980s pop culture and the PlayStation that helped to redefine home entertainment. They even developed new media: the superior but failed Betamax video format and, with Philips, the more successful Compact Disc.

With the rise of Apple and the death of it’s founders – Masaru Ibuka died in 1997 and Akio Morita in 1999 – the now bloated company, with its fingers in many pies, seemed to lose its mojo. New products lacked the finesse and originality of the earlier Sony designs.

The one area of consumer electronics where Sony has been innovative is digital imaging. The company’s respectable Xperia smartphones come equipped with some of the best cameras in that market – the Z1 features a 20mp CMOS sensor, while its NEX series of system cameras are high quality compact imaging machines with innovative interfaces, and its RX1 camera is a brilliantly conceived pocket-sized camera with a full frame sensor and top-notch lens.

But even more ingenious, showing the out-of-the-box thinking of the Sony of yesteryear, are the new lens cameras the company has just announced: the Cybershot QX10 and QX100. These cameras, that look like normal camera lenses but also house a sensor, battery and memory card, feature image stabilisation and shoot video, are designed to be used with Android and iOS phones.

The high-end QX100 features a 1-inch sensor and bright Carl Zeiss zoom lens (f/1.8-4.6 with 3.6x zoom) and is going to sell for about $500. The cheaper QX10 will cost half as much and come with a smaller 2/3″ sensor and a lesser quality lens but with a greater zoom range. I’m seriously intrigued by these lenses. I will be able to connect them physically, through an adaptor, and wirelessly to my phone and operate them through the PlayMemories app, which will turn the phone into a camera viewfinder and interface. From publicity shots, it also looks like the lens and phone can be operated at a distance from each other – imagine the lens on the ground while the photographer operates it through the phone at eye level, like a remote trigger.

Will this product take off? There are a lot of people on Instagram and Flickr who use their cellphones as their primary cameras and who are creating – among all the cat, cake and coffee shots – some seriously good photographic art. Some are already using miniature add-on lenses. I’d expect more than a few of them would be quite interested in these products. Many photographers also supplement their DSLR kits with compact cameras as their take everywhere devices. Given their pocketability, these lens cameras seem made for such a role. If Sony have created a smooth, seamless experience between the phones and Lens Cameras, I think it has a good chance of creating a new niche.

I’d sure like to see this category take off and to see rival companies enter the space (Hello, Fujifilm!) Among other innovations, I could imagine lens adaptor cameras on which you could place your favourite lenses – I’m sure an M-mount phone adaptor camera would be an instant hit!

At any rate, it’s great to see Sony getting inventive again and creating products that have an element of surprise and desirability.

Image credit: QX10 Cyber-shot Lens Camera © Sony 2013


UPDATE – Interestingly, one of the second incarnations of the Lens Camera, the QX1, is essentially a lens adaptor camera body that can be used with any E-Mount lenses.