RED, known for its high-end cinema cameras, is venturing into the smartphone business. The Red Hydrogen One is a phone that has been shrouded in mystery ever since the company announced it late last year, but we had an opportunity to learn just a little more about the device at RED’s headquarters in Los Angeles.
The company is still not giving much away — even while we held it in our hands. We know some specifications, such as how its 5.7-inch screen has a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel resolution. It also runs Android, there’s a dual-sensor camera on the front and the back, and it’s powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 (yes, the flagship chip for 2017), as well as a 4,500mAh battery. It’s built for immersion, as the Hydrogen One’s display is aimed at delivering a 3D experience without the need for 3D glasses; and the phone can process audio to be much more spacial.
The RED Hydrogen One is a beast of a phone. Even with a relatively standard display size of 5.7 inches, it’s thick and heavy. That’s not to say it’s too unwieldy — there are textured grooves on the side that make it easy to hold, while also adding a unique look to the phone. With a large camera module and grey-and-red color scheme, this phone looks different from anything else on the market.
We initially thought the most important part of the RED Hydrogen One would be its camera, considering RED is a camera company. From the brief experiences we’ve had (and considering RED hasn’t really shown us the camera yet), the highlight is the display. The phone uses nanotechnology between the LCD and the back-light to create a 3-dimensional (3D) effect. It reminded us of the display on Nintendo’s 3DS, but images and videos from the so-called “4V” display really did pop off the screen — even at different distances.
The RED Hydrogen One’s display is neat, but it’s not a Star Wars-style hologram.
It’s important to temper expectations. The RED Hydrogen One’s display is neat, but it’s not a Star Wars-style hologram. It does pop out, but you can’t place the phone horizontally and watch images expand off the display.
There are some other major caveats to using it too. The content has to actually support the display — and therein lies one of RED’s biggest hurdles. To overcome this, RED is launching a content platform, where people will be able to download movies and TV shows. The company has also developed technology to convert 2D content into 3D content, but perhaps unsurprisingly, RED representatives said content filmed with the camera on the phone or Red’s upcoming professional dual-lens cinema camera will look better on the screen thanks to the stereoscopic data.
When content isn’t 3D, the display can still be used in normal 2D mode, just like any other phone. The demos we saw were very impressive, but they were also controlled. The jury’s out on whether or not the technology will end up working in the real world with a range of movies and TV shows that people might want to spend their time watching. RED is working on nailing down deals with major movie studios, but whether or not that materializes remains to be seen.
Visual immersion is only a part of the equation. Another piece of the puzzle is audio, and RED’s tackling that too on the Hydrogen One.
Audio from the Hydrogen One sounds close to reality with headphones on — as in if we closed our eyes, we felt as though we were transported to the scenes in the demo videos. It’s all thanks to a lot of 3D audio processing, which enables spatial sound. While it sounds very good, it’s not technologically groundbreaking. We found it similar to listening to Dolby Atmos-supported devices.
Even with ear buds, you can check out experiences like this to get a good idea of what Red is going for. In fact, one of the major demos involved a hair salon, and while we can’t say for sure if this is the same audio, it’s at least very similar.
While the audio may not be groundbreaking, paired with the 3D display, it truly does improve the level of immersion for what you’re watching.
The real take-away from our visit to RED’s headquarters is that there’s a whole lot we don’t know. There’s still a lot we haven’t seen with the display and audio, let alone with the rest of the phone. The Hydrogen One is modular, but we don’t know what it’s meant for or how it changes the phone. We could definitely see it playing into RED’s professional equipment.
We also don’t know much about the Hydrogen One’s camera, which we assume will be the main area of focus for the phone. The phone is built to work with other RED products thanks to its modularity. The word “modularity” has been a bit hit-and-miss in the smartphone world — but in specific use-cases, like the ability to use the phone as a display on RED’s professional equipment, and the ability to use professional lenses with the phone, we suspect it could help pave the way for better smartphone photography. According to a report from The Verge, the one of the first modules will be a large camera sensor that will allow the user to attach lenses from Fuji, Canon, Nikon, Leica, and so on.
The RED Hydrogen One sits somewhere in between $1,200 to $1,500. Yes, it’s expensive, but this is clearly an early-adopter phone with experimental technology. Even though it will strangely be sold on AT&T and Verizon, this phone isn’t meant to be a phone for the average consumer — at least, not yet. Instead, this is a phone for those firmly in the RED ecosystem — those who have RED gear, and want to be able to use their phone with it.
Like virtual reality headsets, it’s clear the Hydrogen One is going to run into the same problem: Content. The phone needs to launch with a large library of movies and TV shows to watch with the holographic display.
We’ll keep an eye out for more things RED as we get closer to the Hydrogen One’s launch date this summer.