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.
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.
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.
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.
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.