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Red Hydrogen: What we know about the $1,200 'holographic' phone

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You may have never seen a Red camera in person -- but you've definitely seen the results. "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," "The Martian" and the latest "Transformers" are just a few of the films shot on Red. Also: popular TV series such as "Better Call Saul," "Mr. Robot" and practically any big-budget Netflix series you care to name.

weapon-dragon-978x513-3

Typically, Red makes modular cinema cameras, like this $49,500 Weapon 6K. (That price doesn't include the screen, carry handle, battery modules, proprietary SSD cartridges, etc.)

Red

But in 2018 Red is looking to expand beyond cameras -- with its first phone, the Red Hydrogen.

It won't be cheap: The Hydrogen costs a staggering $1,595 (roughly £1,235 or AU$2,110) for a phone made out of titanium, or a still-pricey $1,195 (roughly £925, AU$1,580) for aluminum alloy. And those are the preorder prices.

But for that money, Red is promising a phone with supposedly revolutionary tech: a "holographic" display known as 4-View that not only provides a glasses-free 3D image, but also lets you look around and behind objects by displaying multiple perspectives on whatever you're watching.

When Red first announced the phone, details were pretty scarce. Aside from that snazzy display, these were the only features the company revealed on day one:

  • Runs Android
  • Carrier unlocked
  • 5.7-inch screen with "nanotechnology" to seamlessly switch between 2D, stereo 3D and 4-View "holographic" display modes
  • Front and back cameras
  • Supports modular attachments, including an upgraded camera module
  • Charges over USB-C
  • MicroSD card slot for expanded storage
  • Headphone jack
  • Can serve as a touchscreen monitor for Red's other cameras
  • Available in titanium ($1,595) or aluminum ($1,195)
  • Shipping Q1 2018

Needless to say, with so few details and so many promises ("The future of personal communication, information gathering, holographic multiview, 2D, 3D, AR/VR/MR and image capture just changed forever," Red said) the reception was... skeptical.

Podcast: Why we're so excited about Red's $1,200 phone

But since Red's announcement, we've managed to dig up a good bit more information -- including plenty to be cautiously excited about.

Update, August 2: YouTube star Marques Brownlee (MKBHD) now has a hands-on video with a prototype phone -- confirming many details we found in patent filings (read our full story below) as well as dual front-facing speakers, a dedicated video recording button, and a fingerprint sensor built into the power key.

It's a phone with big ridges -- the better for you to grip

Red may have announced its first phone in July 2017, but the US Patent and Trademark Office certainly wouldn't have been surprised. The company's been filing for patents on this phone's design since early 2014.

Here's a picture from that first design patent:

red-design-patent

Red, via USPTO

See those scalloped sides? You can also see them in Red's own promotional image if you crank up the brightness. Reminds us of the scalloped focus rings on old-school camera lenses.

red-hydrogen-boosted

PetaPixel

According to other patent filings, the ridges are partly there to keep the phone from sliding out of your hand -- and partly because they can "provide a grip that is particularly useful when handling the cellphone under the added bulk of [added] lenses." 

Red wants to support interchangeable lenses

Yes, you heard that right: lenses. As in, attaching actual high-quality camera lenses to your phone.

Sure enough, Red's founder has an entire patent for a "low profile lens mount" designed to be small enough and strong enough to attach interchangable lenses, including existing Canon, Nikon and Sony glass, to a phone's chassis. 

Red's "low profile lens mount" patent filing hints at a complimentary lens adapter (Fig. 2A) so you could theoretically attach any camera lens to the phone.

Red, via USPTO

While the patent suggests it could be used for other digital cameras, not just phones, it seems extremely likely it's part of the same Hydrogen idea -- the lens mount patent explicitly mentions the phone patent, and both are assigned to the same holding company.

Red's entire camera sensor could be swappable, too

And it's not just the lenses that might be interchangeable. See all those copper contacts at the bottom of Red's promo image of the phone, and the hex nuts around the edges? Those are there so the Hydrogen can add additional modular parts -- like the brand-new camera that Red founder Jim Jannard hinted at on day one.

In patent filings, Red shows how you might be able to snap a battery module and a camera sensor module onto the Hydrogen. Here they are, all standing in a row:

You'll notice that the lens assembly (numbered 1305) is itself a modular part in this photo. Red's patent filing makes it sound like the interchangable lens adapter could be an optional add-on.

Red, via USPTO

And here's how they might connect together, with those familiar hex bolts:

red-hydrogen-uspto-007

Mind you, Red's patent filing also mentions magnets as a way pieces might snap together.

Red, via USPTO

If you look at Fig. 13B above, you can see that together they make for quite a chunky phone -- but one that could shoot far better pictures than without.

While Jannard wrote that the base phone will come with a pair of standard front and back phone cameras, they reportedly "will not produce cinema quality images." (I hope you weren't expecting they would.)

But "what we will have is a modular system that adds image quality well beyond any other camera short of our professional cameras," wrote Jannard. That's quite a boast, and I wouldn't be surprised if the interchangeable sensor and lens sketches we can see above are what he's talking about.

Red namedrops some other module ideas in the patent filing, too, including a camera flash, a stereo 3D camera, an image stabilization module, a module with tripod mounts or an I/O module with lots of ports -- but it's not clear if Red was merely spitballing. We couldn't find any patents, sketches or descriptions of those. 

4-View 'holographic' video isn't a made-up idea

It's not just marketing BS: Hologram-like video that can be viewed from multiple angles is something scientists and tech companies have been prototyping for years. Only some of them call it "multiview," some call it "multiscopic 3D," and some call it "light field display." 

No matter which, it's a genuinely fascinating concept that requires content creators to adopt new hardware or techniques to capture footage, too -- whether it's multiple cameras recording from different angles, or a single "light field" camera with an array of tiny lenses to split the light before it reaches the camera sensor. Or, perhaps, shooting in stereo 3D first (like today's 3D movies) and then converting to multiview later. 

But it's also true that we need a good way to watch such videos. When USC showed off an automultiscopic 3D display at Siggraph 2015 (see above), it required an array of 216 projectors to show it off properly. Perhaps the Hydrogen's new display can help.

In a pair of forum posts, Jannard confirmed that the Hydrogen won't be able to film 4-View content all by itself. "You will need more pieces of the Hydrogen system to shoot 4-View holography," reads one. "We are still testing the best configuration for shooting 4-View," reads another, in response to a question about how Red users should expect to create such content. 

And while we don't know how Red's multiscopic screen works, Jannard does say it isn't a tech we've seen before, and doesn't use a lenticular display like Amazon's failed Fire Phone. He suggests that unlike lenticular, it'll work in both landscape and portrait modes, won't have color crosstalk and won't suffer reduced resolution in 3D multiview mode.

Red already has working prototypes -- and Brad Pitt has seen one

Normally, this'd be the part where I explain that while this phone sounds like a solid contender for the vaporware awards, Red tends to (eventually) deliver on (most) of its promises. 

My caveat may not be quite as necessary here, because Red already has working prototypes. YouTube star Marques Brownlee posted the first hands-on video on August 2, a day after we published this story:

And here's a picture of Brad Pitt and famed director David Fincher checking one out weeks ago:

Crazy. Last night it seems the entire the world was arguing over how insane we were (again) and how the Hydrogen...

Posted by Jarred Land on Friday, July 7, 2017

Then, there's J.J. Abrams. "Ground-breaking, barrier-smashing, bar-raising and badass" were his words after seeing the phone, according to Jannard

Red says a 'major' cellular carrier has signed on

"Major world carrier signed to carry Hydrogen in all stores… will announce soon," wrote Jannard. Not sure who, but that could be a big vote of confidence -- particularly since it's an unlocked phone, which carriers don't typically like to promote in their stores. 

Still, don't expect the Hydrogen anytime soon

The mere existence of early prototypes and a carrier deal doesn't mean the Hydrogen will meet its Q1 2018 estimated release date -- or that it'll even cost the same $1,200-$1,600 at launch. (While he might simply be saying so to drum up early sales, Jannard has repeatedly hinted that the price might go up.)

Like with previous Red products, the company also says that "specs and delivery dates can change any time, for any reason." If you don't like it, Red will give buyers a no-questions-asked refund anytime before they ship the phone, like usual. 

And to be sure, a few Red products have never made it to market. Perhaps the Hydrogen will be one of those.

Personally, I'm pretty excited by the prospect of another modular phone. And one from Red -- which built its entire business selling pricy modular cameras -- seems a tad more likely to succeed than usual.

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