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Amazon Turns Up the Heat

Eugene Gan - published on 06/19/14

Should you get a Fire Phone?

There hasn’t been much innovation on the smart phone front for a while now. Apple’s iPhone 5s was an underwhelming upgrade and Samsung’s Galaxy S5 is more of the same, offering little in the way of new and exciting features we haven’t already seen.

So when retailer Amazon unveiled their own brand of smart phone on Wednesday, it was something to look forward to. But should you get one? Do the new bells and whistles really matter?

Truth be told, Amazon’s unveiling did not come as a surprise. The retail giant did not hide too many secrets about the Fire Phone. There were enough leaked images and details about the specifications of the phone to put together a pretty good picture of the phone before the unveiling. This new Fire Phone boasts specifications on par with the big boys and will satisfy tech geeks: Quad-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor; 4.7 inch screen (that Amazon claims is bright enough for outdoor viewing) covered in Gorilla Glass 3; HD display; 2G RAM; 13 megapixel rear-facing camera with optical; image stabilization that record 1080p videos; Duel stereo speakers with Dolby Digital Plus virtual surround sound; Customized version of Android (similar to Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets).

The distinguishing feature that sets it apart from the other offerings, however, is a glasses-free 3D experience that uses 4 low-power front-facing cameras located at each of the phone’s corners to track your face and eyes in order to display images that are in sync with where you’re looking, or with how the phone is tilted and moved around. The result is a sensation of 3D as objects move and shift in a sort of “dynamic perspective.”

I can hear the discussion in the Amazon board room when this feature was brought up: “But people will be more apt to buy our stuff when they can see all around it in 3D on their Fire Phones!” It’s not quite the holodiscs you see in Star Wars that are able to project a small holographic figure of Yoda floating in the air, but it’s a small step on that road.

The other significant application for this array of cameras is that the phone can detect gestural motion and react accordingly. No longer would you need to touch the phone’s flat screen to swipe through icons and menus. Instead, simple gestures in the air — a wave of the hand, a flick of the wrist — within the phone’s cameras’ field of view are sufficient to activate apps and manipulate menus. Microsoft is purportedly working on a 3D Windows phone that allows you to control it the way you would an Xbox Kinect, sensing your hovering finger and palm just like Tom Cruise’s operating system in Minority Report or Tony Stark’s workshop. More specifically, Theremin enthusiasts all around the world finally have a shot at practicing all those cool spacey sounds without the expense of buying a Theremin (I don’t see a Fire Phone app for this yet, but I’m sure it’s around the corner). Chefs and mechanics would likewise rejoice at being able to still view recipes and detailed instructions while not having to touch their precious phones with greasy hands. Might this technology one-day function as a quasi-3D scanner that will allow us to scan real-world objects and send these to replicate in 3D printers?

Then there’s the Firefly audio-visual recognition program that comes with the Fire Phone. With this app, you can scan barcodes and have the products automatically pop up on Amazon’s store. Or have Firefly listen to a movie’s soundtrack and take you directly to IMDB’s (Amazon owns this too) website. “Firefly recognizes a hundred million different items in real-world situations…including songs, movies, TV shows, and products — and take[s] action in seconds,” Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos touted.

Firefly can also recognize printed web and email addresses, as well as read numbers. If it detects a telephone number, it’ll offer to call that number for you. Frankly, all these features (and more) are available via apps on the iPhone. Amazon’s move is simply to incorporate these features seamlessly into the Fire Phone, even adding a dedicated one-push Firefly button: “Deeply integrated [into its] vast digital ecosystem” is how Amazon sells it.

The new technology demonstrated is potentially useful. I can see pulling out one of these screens to show 3D models to my animation students. I can see using the Firefly recognition features to connect various media with other similar media content when in discussions with my communications students, or have it recognize art work and provide more information about the artist and the context of the painting for my fine art students.

There are a lot of possibilities, but when it’s priced at the same price point as the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy, and when Amazon locks you into AT&T as the carrier, and so blatantly herds you into its own colossal e-commerce ecosystem, the new features of the Fire Phone come across as gimmicky. Sure, Amazon’s shares went up 2% as I write this, but other numbers balance this out: the Apple store has more than 100 billion downloads with more than $25 billion paid to app developers, and lists more than 1 million apps. Amazon’s appstore by contrast has about 240,000 apps. It will take more than gimmicky technology to increase the number of Fire Phone users in an already flooded marketplace.

“Amazon Prime brings so much joy to the world,” Bezos also said. It might be more accurate to say that Amazon Prime brings a smile to Jeff Bezos if people are subscribing to Amazon Prime and buying more stuff from him. It’s classic business marketing and sales, but it feels manipulative, encouraging a culture to adopt an attitude of consuming more than it can afford.

At the very least, consider this: Amazon’s Fire Phone is set to launch on July 25. Apple is expected to unveil two new handsets this Fall. If you can muster some patience in waiting a couple more months to see what iPhone 6 has to offer, it makes sense to postpone any decisions till then to compare Apple’s and Amazon’s offering at that time before making a purchase. Patience is a virtue.

Dr. Eugene Ganis faculty associate of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville. His latest book isInfinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media.

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