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SONY'S NEWEST MARKETING TOOL IS A PUZZLE IS IT A RETAIL STORE OR A TOURIST TRAP? A LOOK AROUND LEAVES ONE WONDERING

By Published on .

It's a museum. A videogame. An interactive movie theater. And a gift shop cleverly disguised as a "product showcase."

Sony Corp. of America earlier this summer opened the Sony Wonder Technology Lab in the lobby of its New York headquarters. Though wrapped in the guise of an interactive tourist attraction, the space is an elaborately packaged marketing vehicle for Sony products.

The four-level permanent exhibit is now offering free, guided "preview" tours and is expected to open officially around Labor Day, when all of the equipment should be operational. But an early visit offers an intriguing glimpse of technology, corporate synergy and gee-whiz entertainment.

"It's a marketing tool to showcase their current products and also to showcase various professions and industries they make products for," said Richard Rathe, president of Rathe Productions, a New York company that helped implement designer Edwin Schlossberg's vision for Sony Wonder.

(A Sony spokeswoman describes Sony Wonder in more altruistic terms, as an educational tourist destination, and ads from agency Sagon-Phior Group, North Hollywood, Calif., emphasize learning.)

But there's more to it than that. The space, which also includes two gift shops and a public atrium, was mandated for public use as part of a zoning agreement between New York City and AT&T, the landlord and former tenant in the Madison Avenue building.

Sony appears to be banking on the Sony Wonder concept. The company recently formed a unit, Sony Development, to create new retailing opportunities offering shopping and entertainment.

Sony also operates a slightly different type of store in Chicago that displays the latest gadgets and gizmos. While the products can be purchased, the emphasis is on showcasing the technology rather than educating consumers.

Upon entering Sony Wonder, a dispenser spits out bar-coded cards, which are swiped at terminals throughout the exhibit as the keys to its interactivity.

A glass-walled elevator whisks you to the fourth floor, where "log-in stations" in a dark, planetarium-like space ask you to swipe your card and type in your name. A camera and microphone record your image and voice for later demonstrations.

Then, a long ramp meanders down a "Communications Bridge," which purports to teach the history of communications from 1830 to the present, largely through a few plaques and a series of large and small TV screens (Sony, of course) beaming historical drawings and photos and marking the advent of telephones, TVs, VCRs and personal computers.

Some of the screens beam clips from "Tootsie," "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and other seminal influences of popular culture.

The ramp, surrounded by clusters of fiber-optic cables, leads eventually to another group of exhibits. A "technology workshop," featuring glass-encased components of TV cameras, a Macintosh computer (for which Sony provides the picture tube) and a Sony Watchman, demonstrates the inner workings of Sony technology. The camera station allows visitors to color-separate their own images, as retrieved by the bar-code card, and learn how a TV signal is received, processed and transmitted.

Using devices that resemble ping-pong paddles, you can manipulate images on a video paintbox. And you can see sound-wave patterns from samples of Sony recording artists.

At the core of the space, on the second level, is the meat and potatoes of Sony Wonder.

In a sound studio, Sony recording artist Celine Dion, in a video clip, applauds as you remix her music on a pared-down sound board. An "environmental command center" allows participants to use Sony communications technology to help solve one of two simulated (and seemingly unlikely) crises to befall Manhattan, an oil spill and a hurricane.

A TV production facility lets visitors take turns being crew members, demonstrating how chromakeyed backgrounds are used to create an artificial image. A video-hits station lets you mix clips of a Billy Joel music video. Three robotic stations show how Sony technology is used in industrial equipment.

Downstairs, you can "design" a videogame, use a touch-screen to watch ultrasounds of a patient's body in a medical imaging demonstration and visit one of two high-definition TV theaters. The larger of the two, with 73 seats, has controls that let the audience interact with several parts of an 8-minute film that features the star of Sony-produced "Beakman's World," a CBS science series for kids.

Finally, a Sony Design Gallery takes you step by step through the product design of Handycam Snap, a new ultra-portable hand-held videocamera, showing early prototypes, market research and design features.

All exhibits, of course, invariably lead to gift shops. One inside the Sony Wonder lab demonstrates and sells all manner of Sony hardware and software, from video-games and tapes to My First Sony kids' tape players.

Two more shops, adjoining the building's atrium, sell a full line of Sony consumer electronics, music and other products on two levels, including soundtracks from Columbia and Tri-Star Pictures releases.

And for good measure, a union pamphleteer just outside Sony Plaza warns of job losses if Sony's quest to adopt HDTV as an industry standard comes to pass.

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