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Sony, Olympus unveil 4K endoscopy system

Sony Olympus Medical Solutions unveils a 4K surgical endoscope system in Tokyo on Sept. 16.

TOKYO -- Sony Olympus Medical Solutions plans to release a 4K ultrahigh resolution surgical endoscopy system equipped with high-speed autofocus -- the first of its kind -- in early October.

     SOMED, a joint venture between electronics giant Sony and optical equipment maker Olympus, announced the planned release of the Visera 4K UHD on Wednesday. The new system, the first product from SOMED, is priced at about 17 million yen ($139,802) and will be sold through Olympus' sales channels.

All the ingredients

Sony and Olympus formed a capital and business alliance in September 2012 and established SOMED in April 2013. Sony holds a 51% stake in the venture, and Olympus owns the remainder.

     Sony's major contribution to the Visera project was its image processing and transmission technologies, honed through years of developing video cameras, TVs and broadcasting equipment.

     Olympus, meanwhile, provided its cutting-edge technology in digestive endoscopy. The company also consulted with doctors and handled issues related to medical law.

     "It's rare for a company to have all the components -- from the illuminant to the image sensor to the monitor -- for an entire 4K image system," SOMED President Toru Katsumoto said at a press conference the same day.

     Endoscopic surgery places less of a physical burden on patients than abdominal operations do. In the U.S., the number of endoscopic operations performed in 2014 was more than double what it was in 2006.

     Olympus controls only 20% of the global surgical endoscope market, but it hopes the Visera will help raise that ratio to 30% by 2020. "We will make 4K endoscopes the de facto standard in surgeries," said Akihiro Taguchi, senior executive managing officer of Olympus.

In detail

Images produced with 4K endoscopes have four times the resolution of those made using full high definition devices. Doctors who tried out the Visera during a clinical trial reviewed it favorably. "Since I've tried a 4K endoscope, I don't want to use anything else," one said. "It feels like I'm performing abdominal surgery," another commented.

     A major concern for doctors is the faithful reproduction of the red colors of diseased tissue. Sony's video engineers proved up to the challenge.

     "The depth of Sony's image technologies, refined through developing professional broadcasting equipment, was overwhelming," said SOMED Executive Vice President Takashi Fukaya, originally of Olympus. 

     Precise image reproduction is vital for increasing the success rate of operations. With the Visera, Katsumoto said, Sony has managed to provide a high degree of system integration. This means highly accurate images can be displayed on a monitor with almost no delay, despite the heavy data load 4K resolution entails.

     It took two and half years for SOMED to introduce its first product. "It could have taken twice as long if Olympus had worked alone," a senior Olympus official said.

     Medical operations form a key part of Sony's growth strategy. The company aims to generate 200 billion yen in sales from this segment by 2020, and has already ventured into electronic medical notebooks and cell and gene analysis.

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