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5G networks

Sony flexes digital camera muscle with maiden 5G phone

Tech group bets on business-grade camera phone for content pros

Mitsuya Kishida, head of Sony smartphone segment Sony Mobile Communications, reveals the first 5G model under the Xperia series.

TOKYO -- Sony said Monday it will soon release a smartphone that combines the speed of fifth-generation communication with the Japanese tech group's strengths in digital photography.

Sony's first 5G phone, the Xperia 1 II, will reportedly sell for around 1,100 euros ($1,200) in Europe. The rollout will coincide with the launch of commercial 5G services in Japan this spring.

It is not clear whether the device will be enough for Sony to turn around its money-losing smartphone segment. In South Korea and other markets with active 5G services, many customers say 4G phones are sufficient for posting photos and watching videos.

To offset that risk, the Japanese tech group will develop the Xperia Pro for businesses and professionals. Not only will the phone have the advanced camera features of the consumer-market version, it will bump up 5G connectivity as well.

The Xperia 1 II can capture images at 20 frames per second, double the rate of other phones and on a par with Sony's top-of-the-line mirrorless camera, the Alpha 9. Sony believes that more people will use smartphones for shooting photos and producing video, and then transmit large amounts of photo and video data over 5G networks.

An upgraded eye autofocus can capture high-speed burst pictures of pets with no motion blur. The phone also has a time-of-flight sensor that can capture images in focus under any lighting conditions. The lenses, produced by German supplier Carl Zeiss, reduce excess light reflections to improve the texture of the photo subject.

The Xperia Pro, which is under development, can connect to a broadcast camera and transmit video data via 5G. Sony looks to gain customers from on-location broadcasting, telemedicine and other applications that will be made possible with 5G networks.

Enabling 5G to achieve speeds 100 times that of 4G is the bedrock technology called beamforming. Fourth-generation technology transmits signals in all directions, which creates noise and interference, but beamforming points signals toward the intended targets.

Beamforming also has one major limitation: a device can have trouble connecting if it is not positioned correctly. The Xperia Pro gets around that with 5G antennas on all sides of the phone.

Sony conducted a test of real-time sports broadcasting using 5G technology with such partners as Verizon.

Sony will market the industrial-grade smartphone as a device that can deliver high-definition footage in real time from hard-to-access locations. Content producers would no longer have to spend time and funds on cabled camera equipment or mobile broadcast vehicles.

In the U.S., Sony in December joined forces with wireless carrier Verizon Communications and broadcaster NBC Sports to conduct a pilot test demonstrating the capability of 5G cameras to capture an NFL football game in real time.

Video captured on Sony's shoulder-mounted camera on the field was streamed to the production booth inside the stadium through Sony's prototype transmitter box and an Xperia 5G device. Sony determined that demand for the technology from broadcast companies will be immense.

Sony's smartphone business has posted red ink for years, and its survival as an ongoing segment will be determined in part by whether it can turn a profit in the financial year ending March 2021. Sony's smartphones have struggled to find a place in a market dominated by iPhones on the high end and Chinese-made models on the low end.

Ever since multiple camera lenses started appearing in downmarket phones, Sony's smartphones have been squeezed by the competition. The company will attempt to mount a comeback by developing the professional market.

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