Smartphones

RED’s First Smartphone Still Looks Like a Fake Star Trek Prop

Image: Leia Inc.

RED, the makers of super high quality cameras that probably cost more than your car, has been working on
an equally ambitious phone
with some of the most far out tech any company has ever tried to put on a handset. Yesterday CEO Jim Jannard took to the RED camera forums to give more details on the sci-fi sounding holographic display, and
to announce a partnership
with Leia Inc., “the leading provider of lightfield holographic display solutions for mobile.”

Dubbed the Hydrogen Phone, RED’s upcoming $1,195 gadget boasts impressive features such as a Kevlar body, dual-rear cameras, optional titanium sides (for an extra $400) and a complicated sounding modular add-on system that should, somehow, let the phone integrate with RED’s cinema-quality camera gear. But even with all that, there’s one aspect about the Hydrogen Phone that seems like it can’t be more than a gimmick: Its holographic display.

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According to the press release RED has joined forced with Leia Inc., an offshoot from Hewlett-Packard Labs, because of the company’s “recent breakthroughs in Nano-Photonic design and manufacturing to provide a complete lightfield “holographic” display solution for mobile devices.” Those are some very big words that boil down to mean a phone developed by Liea could include nice vaguely holographic images. The display is said to use multi-layered LCDs in combination with directional backlighting to produce an image that pops out from the display, not entirely unlike Princess Organa’s
call for help
in a galaxy far, far away.

That sounds very cool, but let’s be realistic. We’ve actually seen examples of Leia Inc.’s display tech already. Two years ago the
Wall Street Journal
went hands on with the technology in Barcelona. There’s even video.

Judging from the tech Leia had on display it seems likely the holographs will probably only project a little ways out of the screen, similar to the stereoscopic 3D effect you get on the
Nintendo 3DS
.

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Yet at this point, we don’t actually know, because despite all the noise and hype that’s come out about this holographic phone, no one outside of a few celebrities from film and YouTube, have seen it in action.

About a month ago, popular YouTuber MKBHD
posted a video
showing his reaction while checking out an early version of the Hydrogen Phone featuring a prototype holographic display. He claimed it left him “at a loss for words.” And based on a recent
Facebook post
from RED president Jared Land, it seems director David Fincher and and actor Brad Pitt were pretty impressed as well.

But the rest of the world still really hasn’t seen anything yet, and at some point, RED is going to have to put up or shut up. Not only does RED need to execute on tech that so far has eluded every other company, it also has to convince people holographic displays (on a $1200 phone!) are something we actually want.

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When was the last time you saw a movie in 3D? Now look to mobile devices where there’s really only one 3D device available: The Nintendo 3DS. I,
like many other 3DS owners,
tried out the 3D effects on that console. Then I disabled the feature and never turned it back on again. That’s because as interesting as 3D is, it’s not something you actually want to use all the time (that’s one of the reasons Nintendo released the 3D-less
New 2DS XL earlier this summer
). And this is before you consider that in order to create 3D holographic content for RED’s phone you’ll either need to convert existing 3D video to RED’s .4v format (holographic 4-view), or capture footage using a complicated 4-camera setup that RED hasn’t even finalized yet.

Now consider the state of smartphones as a whole. Innovation is becoming more iterative, and even big names like Samsung and Apple are having trouble with tech like
fingerprint readers that are integrated into the screen
. So while I appreciate that RED is trying to make a splash,
 
let’s not forget about what happened recently when the hype ran out of control about the other potentially “disruptive” new player, the
Essential Phone.
That phone isn’t very good, and is still struggling to ship!

For now, let’s just say that we’re cautiously optimistic, after all, RED came out of nowhere and created some of the best pro-grade cameras on the market. But I wouldn’t be surprised if in the end, the Hydrogen Phone turns out to be a better device when its holographic display is turned off.