Smartphones already do so much more than make calls: they talk to you, provide turn-by-turn directions, record-and-play back HD video, and some, have fancy doodads, like built-in heart rate monitors.
But Amazon has apparently come up with something entirely new.
A video released by the Seattle-based company today showed potential customers oohing and ahhing over the mystery device. Reactions included everything from surprised head tilts to comments such as “It’s amazing,” and “It’s very real-life and incomparable to anything I’ve ever seen,” and “That’s pretty damn intuitive.”
So, what could Amazon possibly be cooking up that makes its first phone so darn special?
The clues are scattered throughout a variety of patent filings by the company, including one that lists Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos himself as the inventor. A report by UnwiredView.com unearthed this and other Amazon patent filings from 2008 and 2010, showing off some pretty space-aged ideas with detailed explanations and illustrations.
What the patent filings show — at a high level — is a phone capable of detecting hand gestures, similar to the Xbox Kinect, along with the ability to track eye movement. By tracking a user’s eye movement, the interface is able to shift, so the user can view it easily from any angle, which may also make typing on a touchscreen more accurate.
Bezos’ patent lists 100-plus features that have the goal of making it easier to interact with devices as they get smaller and rely on touchscreens, which can be obscured with smudges and dirt.
This matches, in general, what has leaked out publicly about Amazon’s phone. For instance, according to BGR, the smartphone will feature five front-facing cameras, four of which will be used to allow users to see 3D effects without any special glasses. The four cameras are low-power infrared sensors, and will be able to track your head movements. The Wall Street Journal also reported on the phone’s 3D capabilities, adding that the device is expected to begin shipping in September.
But really? Eye-tracking? 3-D? Hand gestures?
It all sounds a little gimmicky, similar to when Apple first launched Siri, and reports flooded the Internet of people asking the digital personal assistant all sorts of questions, and then once the novelty wore off, most people only used it occasionally.
To give us a sense of what’s coming June 18, I’ve compiled a list of logical use cases for the technology. The information comes from a number of sources, including the patents with additional interpretation from people who have knowledge of the phone’s capabilities.
- One of the consumers on the video said: “It moved with me,” which hints that the device will track your eye movement, allowing the person to see everything on the screen even at odd angles. This could make reading a text message easier without picking up the phone off the table, and may produce a feeling of “depth,” or looking into the device — not just images popping out of the device, as 3D is usually viewed.
- Complex motions, including facial movements and device movements can be used for inputting information. For example, a user could shut the device down by performing actions such as tilting the device to the right and then nodding up and down, the patents said.
- A password could be three nods up and down, followed by a smile and two eyebrow raises, or any other appropriate combination of motions, patents said.
- Amazon’s main business could also get easier if facial recognition allows quick purchases, by letting a user buy something performing an action such as nodding the user’s head up and down, the patents indicated
- Another example hits on another Amazon specialty: e-books. When a user wants to turn to the next page, maybe they will tilt the device or turn their head to the right. The user might smile or nod their head in a “yes” motion to stop turning pages when navigating through a publication, one patent said.
- 3D-like technology will enable some content to receive higher priority, like upcoming appointments or new messages, which can be rendered at different, “higher” levels in the interface.
A couple of flashy features will go a long way in helping Amazon stand out in an already crowded mobile phone industry, but will it be enough for consumers to switch from their beloved iPhone, Android phone or Windows Phone?
In general, 3D technology has not gained much traction, either in the living room or movie theater, where special glasses are still required, or with devices like the Nintendo 3DS, which is glasses-free. But Facebook is pushing into virtual reality with its Oculus acquisition, and Google is pressing ahead with its augmented reality Google Glass initiative.
Beyond the wow factor of Amazon’s new phone, other critical factors will have to line up with customer expectations — including price; cloud services, like integrated music streaming and picture storage; and availability, which includes distribution agreements with major carriers.
Other features of the phone that have been reported include a 4.7-inch display, a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera, 2GB of RAM, and a potential plan to offset costs, called Prime Data, which would give users free access to content from certain websites and services, similar to AT&T’s “Sponsored Data” initiatives.
We won’t have to wait long to find out exactly what Amazon has up its sleeve. As part of the video released today, Amazon invited customers, journalists and developers to an official unveiling on June 18 in Seattle.