Why Buy RED's Smartphone?

Why Buy RED's Smartphone?

RED is entering a nearly impossible market, and promises to deliver a smartphone like no other – armed only with their reputation. What exactly stands in their way, and can the RED Hydrogen compete? Here’s everything you need to know about their chances.

First off, the specs of this phone are scarce. Save for a handful of forum posts and a PDF, we won’t be seeing the phone just yet. It will boast a 5.7” display, that will be able to show off fancy 3D content, a la Nintendo’s 3DS. To accompany that, it will be capable of VR and AR. They’re taking Google’s Project Tango, and running with it. Funny, that all of it will run on Android.

That’s a lot to take in. To boil it down, the display will be like peering into a small window. Accompanied with the right camera and chip setup for fully fledged virtual reality and augmented reality (superimposing objects onto a scene, live from your phone’s camera). According to Jim Jannard, the screen isn’t lenticular. From what we can gather, the user should see a 3D image without distortion, and at better viewing angles than most comparable displays. “There is no good way to describe it until you see it,” claims Jannard.

[More Mario than cinema camera, but bizarre nonetheless]

What might matter more, is the support for controlling and monitoring RED’s cameras. That’s right, we can only assume that the Redmote will be the 2nd option compared to the Hydrogen. As a result, DPs that rely on the cameras might invest in the smartphone to make things smoother. This may be where the smartphone finds its market at first. My interest lies in how this display could possibly work with future RED cameras for recording a stereoscopic image.

None of this is cheap though, coming in at $1195 for the Aluminum version, and $1595.00 for Titanium. At that price, this phone had better live up to the RED reputation, and then go far beyond. If they want to seriously take on the giants, they’ll need a serious phone.

[It looks strikingly different to what we consider a modern smartphone]

What Makes RED Different?

Like all new technology, it’s exciting. However, excitement doesn’t sell phones. Is this just a stepping stone in the right direction, like the Palm Pre before the iPhone, or can it actually compete? Amazon and Nokia have tried and failed to gain a foothold in the smartphone market, with these exact ideas.

So what makes RED any different? They’re currently taking in pre-orders, and it’s entirely based on their reputation. Jannard argued that “over the past 10 years RED has gone from scam (announcing the impossible) to delivering the impossible.” While he’s right and RED filled a gap in a stagnating cinema-camera market, that was years ago and this is an entirely new beast.

[Moto Mods are a great example of what RED is trying to do. Note the Hasselblad camera here]

Notice how nobody’s throwing around the specs for the phone’s camera? You’d think that would be up front and center, but RED plans to take a leaf out of Moto’s book and sell additional add-ons later. The camera that’s built into the phone won’t be anything special, explaining that “What we will have is a modular system that adds image quality well beyond any other camera short of our professional cameras.” Sure, this should help future proof the phone, but at what cost? Will the base model be enough on it’s own?

RED’s clout in the cinematography industry is, while at times hated, undeniable. That’s what makes them different. They’ve been able to go beyond what was thought to be capable before, and the Hydrogen rests on this.

A Promise They Can Keep: High End

Disregarding the amazing tech they’re purporting to have, there could be something to taking the higher end of the smartphone market out to dinner. I think the idea of a luxury phone has always been scuttled by a lack of manufacturer support, a niche customer and general ostentatiousness.

Where RED might compete (or avoid competition), is for a customer who can afford to pay over $1k for a smartphone, and wants that premium experience. Today, a connection to the internet is considered a basic human right. Smartphones are an everyday item in that equation, meaning that if they’re all high end, none of them are. I’m not talking down iPhones, I’m saying that the bar has risen.

[Apple's ARKit is set to dominate]

The Competition

It’s no secret that the smartphone industry is one of the toughest to do well in. If RED want to make the best smartphone for virtual reality and augmented reality content, they’ll need to compete with Apple. We’ll discount Google, since the Hydrogen is using Android. What RED needs to avoid, is pouring technology into their product, only for the bigger guys to use it for themselves. After all, this isn’t the cinema camera market that RED is used to. Product differentiation, especially on the Android platform, is murky at best. This must be why they're starting some sort of a "RED Channel" in which users can upload proprietary .h4v content.

Unfortunately for them, Apple’s new “ARKit” for developers has been wildly successful and is expected to rock the industry massively. According to Craig Federighi at Apple, we’re looking at “the largest AR platform in the world.” He’s not wrong. Soon, every modern iPhone will have an entire ecosystem of AR apps available. How will RED ever compete against this?

Where Apple falls down, is hardware. Google’s Tango program endeavored to bring the physical hardware to phones, whereas Apple is trying to patch over this with advanced software for now. Motion tracking on this level needs more hardware than you’d think, including a stellar camera (or cameras). A smartphone doesn’t know exactly where it is in 3D space without a camera, and the more, the merrier.

Can They Do It?

If RED manage to get this phone off the ground, and keep it going, it won’t be due to RED fans. It will be due to a successful product that consistently beats the competition. Jannard explained that in order for this to work, you would need to “make something significantly better and you have a reason to be.”

If they can get their phone out faster than Apple can beef up the iPhone 8, then there’s a chance that developers could thrive over in Google’s camp. It’s unclear whether the Hydrogen will be supporting Tango, but I can’t see why they wouldn’t. With this in mind, I don’t see RED taking over any serious chunk of the smartphone market, but I have no doubt that they’ll make a cool phone. If being a “cool phone” is what they’re after then I think we’re in for a treat.

For me though, the possibilities of this phone are negated by the possibilities of RED’s contributions as a whole. If they really are pioneering technology like they claim to be, and it really does make the phone incredible – then that ought to outlast the Hydrogen. I for one really hope that they can achieve the impossible once more.

Stephen Kampff's picture

Working in broadcasting and digital media, Stephen Kampff brings key advice to shoots and works hard to stay on top of what's going to be important to the industry.

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When is this AR/VR fad going to...fade away?

It's never going away. I mean, VR is the more niche technology the way I see it. Fully immersing oneself in another world is really the stuff of video games and other temporary experiences. But AR has the potential to really do quite a bit in enhancing what information we have access to for various decision-making tasks about real objects/locations in the real world.

I really don't see a future where everyone wears AR glasses all day long or anything, but as a tool on our phones for a number of things, it could definitely be interesting long-term.

Like what Adam said, VR is meant for gaming and corporate companies to visualize their products and cut down on creating prototypes. AR is only going to become more and more prevalent in day to day life. The company I work for realized AR's potential a couple years ago and pretty much switched it's entire focus to creating AR content. If you're not looking forward to it, brace yourself.

That would be code for promotion and advertising? It'll be to Powerpoint what powerpoint was to Excel pie charts on color paper? So when Lockheed want a cost overrun, the zoomy jet pictures will make the accountants duck?

We knock promotion/advertising so much these days, and in many cases rightly so. There's a reason to push back when we're so inundated with ads every day. But sometimes, just SOMETIMES, it's nice to be marketed to in the right way.

At some level, we all need certain things in life: sunscreen to enjoy ourselves at the beach, furniture in our homes, or gas for our road trips, etc.. If I can go to the grocery store and quickly whip out my phone to see where the sunscreen is instead of searching up and down the aisles for 10 minutes, or see what some furniture would look like in my home before buying it and then later regretting and returning it, or see that there's a gas station right on the other side of the building to my right, but that I can go in through an alley from my side....these are all things that help me save time by making it more clear where the things that I need are and how to get them faster.

It's not even about instant gratification. In this case, it's about minimizing spending time doing errands (i.e. necessities) and maximizing time enjoying the things that having the necessities lets you enjoy (i.e. having sunscreen, furniture, and gas in the car vs. being at the beach, watching a show on a comfy couch, or having arrived at your campground).

Some people will overuse these things — their loss. But for those that take advantage just a little, being "marketed to" by these businesses could help you. After all, a business is just a place that tries to give you what you want for a price you're willing to pay...

I think in the future we'll be plugged into VR. Between cellphones, social media, and VR interfaces (both present and future), we're slowly replacing our real world with a proxy. How often do you see your friends, and even yourself, at social gatherings ignoring the actual environment you are in and transporting yourself to the virtual world you live in within your phone? You are taking your first steps into the Matrix.

That would be a downgrade of the real world, and downgrades pass. You may wish to look at a breezy beach if your are stuck in a dank basement ....

...except that many people are already in the Matrix, even in the crude technology. It will simply appear more and more real over time, which will draw them closer and closer into it, and eventually no one will care about reality anymore. At least most. Good question what happens to those who don't...

Toys for rich geeks.

Sounds pretty interesting. You only live once, if you can afford it, buy it.

You hit the reason to dismiss it: you only live once. The less time one spends staring at a tiny screen and advertising content, the richer the life.

Enjoyment in life is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. What sounds abysmal to you might be wonderful to someone else.