SONY

INZONEHelping gamers
push the limits

The new INZONE™ gaming-gear brand fuses together an array of Sony technologies
from the entertainment world to deliver solutions for gamers of all kinds,
from console fans and PC gamers to esports athletes. With the brand coming off
releases of three gaming headsets and two gaming monitors, this article takes a deep dive
into the project as designers look back on the origins of the INZONE brand,
the design development behind the products, and everything in between.

(LtoR) Sony Group Creative Center:
Masanori Matsushima,
Tetsuro Tsuji, Tamie Onishi, Miyuki Shirakawa,
Sai Karasawa, Chiya Watanabe, Soichi Tanaka

Exploring what Sony
can do for gamers

Designers were involved in the INZONE project at the initial planning stages. What kind of mentality did they take into the effort?

TsujiWhen I heard about the project, I honestly thought it’d be quite the challenge. I’m a pretty big gamer myself, and I’m always learning things from the booming market for gaming PCs. The esports arena is incredible right now, too, with pro players pouring themselves into their training and fans clamoring to watch the best of the best compete—it’s just as thrilling as traditional sports, I think. There’s a vibrant culture already underlying that community, the work of pioneering pros, supportive fanbases, and other brands. I knew that getting a foothold in that environment wouldn’t be an easy task; Sony would have its work cut out for it. From that tough starting point, the INZONE team got to talking about what Sony could offer gamers and what our brand would represent in the broader context.

WatanabeTo be a brand that the playing community would embrace, we needed to know the ins and outs of the gamer culture. Pretty much everyone on the project team was a hardcore player, but being so deep into a given culture already can form preconceptions in your mind and cloud your design vision. That’s why we decided to work with product planners and engineers from the project to research other brands and interview pro players. At the same time, we also built our own gaming PCs and tried our hands at different game titles to kind of wipe our slates clean and “reinstall” what being a player feels like. For this project, the design effort hinged on getting rid of our individual assumptions and staying as close as we could to the player perspective the whole time.

Putting players deeper
into—and above—the competition

The design team worked carefully to develop concepts and designs that would chart the course for the brand’s future.

TsujiWhat sets Sony apart? What kind of gaming experience can Sony deliver? As we kept digging into those questions, we gradually came around to the idea that Sony’s real advantage lies in its commitment to creators: for years, we’ve continually used the power of technology to deliver on the needs and ideals of creative minds across the board. That goes from the unique technologies we’ve developed for high-quality audio and video to the offerings we’ve rolled out to give creators in music, film, and other entertainment fields the resources they need to pursue their passions.

We already had an array of technologies for immersing users in music and video through crystal-clear sound and imagery. The way we saw it, those assets could translate right into the gaming world—they could enhance players’ skills and make gameplay even more immersive. It’d be like an athlete getting "into the zone," a state where the person reaches peak concentration and everything comes together in optimal alignment. When we realized how our technologies could unlock that kind of performance for the gaming world, we all knew the brand concept would revolve around putting gamers "into the zone" so that they could sharpen their senses and play better than they’d ever imagined.

TsujiAnd then we repackaged the "get into the zone" concept into the "INZONE" brand name. For the logotype, a basic building block for the brand, we set out to forge a design that’d evoke a sense of "limits" to push and break through. The key to that was putting a forward slash right between the "Z" and "O" of "INZONE," a visualization of a limit that a player can transcend to reach new heights in their gameplay "zone." We also wanted to make sure that the logotype wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle of different products in store settings, so we decided to maximize visibility and recognition by going with a simple string of block letters.

WatanabeTo get the whole team on the same page, we also drew up a concept visual that would represent the brand’s core worldview. The idea was to communicate a “player-centric” focus on helping gamers take on new challenges and tap their full potential, much like a sports brand supports athletes, so we designed the visual to speak directly to the hunger that drives players to heighten their awareness and stay focused on victory.

In crafting the INZONE communication design, we put a lot of work into choosing the right brand color scheme. Since colors are a big part of enhancing brand visibility among the target audience, we knew we had to think hard about what colors would be the best fit. We eventually arrived at a gradation between blue, which conveys a sense of concentration, and purple, which connotes heightened sensitivity—a combination that captures the whole INZONE experience perfectly. Solidifying the brand concept, worldview, tone, and manner gave the whole project a clear path to follow forward.

Thinking outside the box to
create a truly winning headset

For gamers playing first-person shooters (FPS) or third-person shooters (TPS), a gaming headset is vital to hearing footsteps and other sounds that help locate rivals. The team took that crucial role into account as they designed the INZONE headset.

TanakaWe’d already gotten a lot of positive feedback from gamers about Sony’s headsets for music—especially their noise canceling features, which players said were great for hearing enemies’ footsteps and making quick, sound-based decisions in FPS. In that context, the product planners and engineers got to work on building the INZONE audio experience around gamers’ needs by combining noise canceling features with a host of other elements, including 360 Spatial Sound technologies for replicating the source locations of footstep sounds. The product-design effort naturally drew on Sony’s extensive background in music, too, but made it a point not to just play by the book. Overall, there was a real commitment to both creating a headset that would give players a winning edge and getting the engineers’ development approach to come across in the design.

The engineers tailored cutting-edge acoustic technologies to gaming applications, effectively creating the INZONE headset experience: a quiet, isolated headspace where you can up your concentration level and detect ambient sound faster than ever. For the product designers, the job was to translate that immersive gameplay experience into the physical form of the product itself. After talking through different ideas, we decided to base our design on the “ear defenders” that F1 pit crews and helicopter pilots wear. When you see a pair of those earmuff-style devices, chances are you imagine someone relaying instructions or carrying out orders under noisy, tense conditions—the perfect association for highlighting the INZONE’s exceptional noise canceling performance and state-of-the-art acoustic technologies. The process helped us establish a basic design identity for Sony gaming headsets, as well.

The oval housing has a simple but memorable design characterized by three circles
arranged in a line—the base of the hanger and the movable part of the microphone both cut
in a perfect circle with a smooth surface, and the circle at the base of the headband.

TanakaAfter we’d decided on the earmuff-type design, we started identifying all the features that’d make the unit a real asset for putting players in position to win. The volume switch was a key component, since players need to be able to adjust their volume settings on the fly depending on the in-game situation. To make the controls easy to use, we put the switch right in the spot where a player’s thumb would land when they reached up to the housing with their left hand. We also gave it a protruding, rounded shape so that players could quickly find it with their fingertips. Our microphone design harmonized with the conceptual focus on enhancing players’ concentration, too, letting users automatically mute their input by just flipping the microphone up to minimize physical operations.

With games often featuring dark environments, a lot of players dim their room lights to enhance visibility and get a better feel for their game environments—but that lack of light can also make it hard to tell whether gaming devices are connected. That’s why we designed the ring on the housing of the wireless INZONE H9 light up to indicate the connection status. Aiming for a lighting dynamic that’d harmonize with gaming-gear aesthetics, we worked up our own light-emission system, went back and forth with engineers between the drawing board and the testing environment, and finally got the design we wanted. For the INZONE H9/H7 headsets, we put the hanger inside the housing to do away with any lines on the housing surface and give esports teams a clear, open canvas to display their logos on.

TanakaFit was another focus. Gamers who play for hours on end need comfort, something they can wear for long stretches of time without getting fatigued. Although we were using Sony’s experience in music headsets as a touchpoint for our design, we also had plenty of intricacies to consider. Wide headbands make for better stability, for example, but also a heavier result. Meanwhile, lateral pressure on the ears can get painful. Taking the factors into account, we prototyped different headband widths and curve angles until we found the optimal shape. Then there were the ear pads, the main point of direct contact between the headset and the user. Feel and texture are obviously crucial there, so we hand-selected the best pad fabric for every model to maximize comfort.

The team filled the INZONE H3 with its own set of unique features.

OnishiThe INZONE H3 is a lightweight, compact, wired companion to the wireless H9 and H7 devices. While it doesn’t have the same component devices as its wireless counterparts, the H3 is right there with them as part of the INZONE gaming headset series—and we wanted to make sure the lineup looked impressive as a series. For the H3, then, we built on the core earmuff form and made sure that the volume dial would be just as intuitively operable as it is on the higher-shelf models. The simple hanger setup makes for a durable, easy-to-use unit, and the nylon earpads we developed with the engineering team breathe extremely well—a feature that keeps things from getting stuffy or uncomfortable over long-haul gaming sessions, letting players concentrate on gameplay instead of having to deal with discomfort.

(LtoR) INZONE H9, INZONE H7, INZONE H3 Three models
are available for players to choose from according to their style.

Designing an entire playing environment,
not just a monitor

To design the INZONE M9 and M3 gaming monitors, the team explored ways of centering their approach on the brand concept of bringing players "into the zone."
* The INZONE M3 will be available within 2022.

KarasawaWhen I heard that the engineers were working to pack Full Array Local Dimming backlighting technology from the BRAVIA® TV series into the INZONE M9—all without sacrificing the monitor’s high-spec, 4K/144Hz performance—I knew right away that we were going to be creating a display for serious gamers. Someone who plays on that kind of machine isn’t just a casual gamer, that’s for sure. We had our target audience, and we also had an important question to tackle: how could we design the monitor to put those savvy players into the zone, that place where they can really channel their focus? The first objective we got to work on was a playing environment that’d stay out of the player’s way and keep the gaming experience as immersive as possible.

We already knew that some FPS gamers like to turn their keyboard diagonally when they play, but a closer look at actual playing environments shed even more light on what went into people’s setups. We found that a good number of hardcore gamers like to wrap their setup around the screen, with the keyboard at an angle under the display to the left and a big mousepad to the right. The problem, though, is that gaming monitors tend to have support stands that take up quite a bit of space, making it harder to place the keyboard or mousepad where the player wants it to go. We came across quite a few players who were kind of settling for the best they could get under the circumstances.

KarasawaSeeing that players needed more space to the left and right under the monitor, we worked with engineers to come up with a new stand design that put one support in front and two in back—which kept the area under the front side of the screen more open. The design also makes cable management easier, giving players plenty of space to use in front of, around, and even behind the monitor however they want—and that freedom translates into a broader range of possible play styles. At the same time, we toned down the visual presence of the Sony logo and power indicator on the bezel so that the game world would have even more room to breathe, expand, and immerse the user across the INZONE monitor’s high-resolution backdrop.

For the designers, the illumination was another element that drew considerable focus.

KarasawaUnique illumination setups are ubiquitous in the gaming world, where players like to design the lighting for all their peripherals in distinctive color schemes—an element that they say enhances their gameplay. The INZONE M9 fits right into that aesthetic mode, featuring built-in LED illumination on the back with 13 color options, but there’s also a lot going on in terms of the design, too. The illumination comes from LED light hitting the monitor’s exhaust duct indirectly, which means that you don’t see the actual lighting parts when they’re not on. Whether the lights were on or off, we wanted the monitor to have a great look.

Giving gamers an edge with
quicker access to key features

The INZONE user interface (UI) has multiple elements. In addition to putting together an on-screen display for the gaming monitor, the design team also developed an interface for the INZONE Hub PC software that lets users configure both the monitor and the headset.

MatsushimaPutting players "into the zone" was our primary goal for the UI design, too. We started out by dividing the components of the UI into the hardware side and the software side. On the hardware side, we put the settings that players would need to be able to adjust in-game. For the INZONE Hub PC software side, meanwhile, we chose settings that users could take the time to sit down and configure before starting up a game. We designed the monitor’s on-screen display to make accessing color calibration and other settings quick and easy, along with creating a shortcut menu for all the available parameters that players can call up during a game to make necessary adjustments without skipping a beat.

Sketch of the gaming monitor's OSD.
The shortcut menu allows you to quickly adjust the settings you want.

ShirakawaOn the software end is the INZONE Hub PC software, which makes it possible to fine-tune monitor and headset configurations so that players of all kinds can set things up exactly the way they want to. Given that the optimal settings tend to vary depending on whether the game’s an FPS, RPG, or something else, we also designed the interface to let users save their settings on a title-by-title basis. When players choose a game to play, INZONE Hub can instantly call up and apply the saved configurations—just another example of how the INZONE product family lets gamers concentrate on what’s in the game and not what’s outside it. For the design of the software itself, we used the brand colors as accents on the various screens, incorporated the shapes of the logotype into the look of the buttons, and took other steps to ensure a consistent brand experience.

A priority for the INZONE Hub design was making everything easy to understand.

MatsushimaThe INZONE lineup uses a spatial sound virtualizer in the headset and a host of other innovative features to deepen the immersion factor and give players an extra edge in competition, but we were aware that players wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with everything. Being able to understand and utilize the advantages that the features offer is the best way for users to get all of what the INZONE brand has to offer, so we outfitted the INZONE Hub PC software with a guide function that explains what the core features are and what they do. That way, players can learn how to take full advantage of the hardware’s functionality no matter how much they already know.

INZONE Hub UI

With gamers, for gamers:
A commitment that
enriches the brand

What did the designers take away from the project, and where do they see the effort going in the future?

ShirakawaDesigners were active across the whole INZONE project, from formulating the brand concept to designing the family’s products, UX and UI, and communication. Every step of the way, we kept coming back to importance of the player’s standpoint—the need to be there with gamers. For example, we pinpointed a feature we saw as being essential to the product and then proposed it to the product planners and engineers. What we did next was sit down with them, play the game together, and show them situations in the gameplay experience where the feature would be crucial. That process illustrated how useful the feature would be, helping us convince other people on the project team. Working on INZONE was a great reminder of what design all comes down to: how fully you can focus on the user instead of just confining yourself to your own line of work.

TsujiThe big driver behind our design effort for the INZONE lineup was wanting to contribute to the whole gaming culture, a living legacy that’d had such a profound influence on us and given us so much to experience. We wanted to give back to the community, in a way; the goal was to deliver quality gaming gear to players who put so much into honing their skills and toughening up the mental side of their game. That was our way of embodying Sony’s Purpose: to "fill the world with emotion, through the power of creativity and technology." As we look ahead, we’re excited to do whatever we can to grow INZONE gaming gear into a solid, compelling brand.