A closer look at the new technologies in Amazon's Fire smartphone

Firefly, Dynamic Perspective are compelling features, but are they enough to make phone users drop the iPhone or Android?

Using the new technologies in its Fire smartphone, Amazon may eventually merge Google's new imaging technology with the Fire's Firefly and Dynamic Perception innovations to empower consumer buying further than before, an IDC analyst predicted.

The result could be the ability for an average consumer to take a picture of a living room with the Fire phone and then quickly assess how a specific brand of 50-in. TV that's sold in the Amazon store would look on the wall of that living room in a 3D-like way.

Amazon's Fire phone and its recognition app called Firefly. (Photo: Amazon)

The concept would be similar to what Ikea already does with augmented reality technology in its printed furniture catalog. With the AR technology, a customer can see on a smartphone or tablet display how an Ikea table or chair would in the customer's living room.

With Amazon's Fire, the entire Amazon online catalog would be available with just a few clicks to show how products look in a person's home, with easy purchasing and delivery.

"I would say the Fire phone is a blueprint of where Amazon is heading with mobile," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC who laid out the TV purchase idea. "Google has already brought Project Tango (its experimental imaging technology) to a tablet prototype, which allows you to scan a 3D environment and learn its X, Y and Z dimensions which can be stored on a phone. So if you captured that image and then plugged the 50-inch TV into the room -- bingo! That's a kind of AR and pretty powerful."

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos didn't describe such a scenario in his presentation of the Fire phone on Wednesday, but it is probably within reach of the current Fire phone, with the assistance of some third-party apps, or a future Fire phone, analysts said.

The Fire incorporates several new technologies, including Firefly, which recognizes items in the real world, like books, games and QR codes, and Dynamic Perspective, a 3D-like technology. The question remains whether these new features will be compelling enough to attract buyers.

"I'm not saying these technologies aren't interesting, but is there enough there for consumers to say, 'I need this phone,'?" said Julie Ask, a Forrester analyst.

Getting developers on board

Amazon provided plenty of online documentation for third-party app developers to use for rejiggering iOS and Android apps for the Fire phone. Application development tools are already available for use with both Firefly and Dynamic Perspective in Fire.

The Dynamic Perspective SDK (software development kit) is described by Amazon as a way for developers to access the X, Y and Z coordinates of a Fire user's head, to enable "a whole new class of apps and games."

The hardware behind Dynamic Perspective incorporates four low-power cameras in the corners of Fire's display, each equipped with an infrared LED and tied to a dedicated processor and real-time vision software. It promises to give users the ability, for example, to see closeup front and back views of a dress in Amazon's new Shopping app for Fire.

Zillow, a real estate shopping app, used the Dynamic Perspective SDK to let a potential buyer tilt their head to zoom into a bedroom or peek around the kitchen corner, Amazon said in a statement. With Dynamic Perspective, a customer can use one hand to tilt and control moves through a book or Web page or to check out 3D-like maps that have added information on locations with Yelp ratings.

Llamas said Dynamic Perspective seems to go much further than what Apple offered with its parallax view, a 3D effect introduced a year ago in iOS 7. Apple's illusion let icons seem to float above the home screen, but the function apparently didn't go over well with many users,who turned off the function or didn't know how to use it for other parts of the iPhone experience, Llamas said.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos presents the company's first smartphone, called the Fire phone, at an event in Seattle. (Photo: Amazon)

Both the Android-based HTC Evo 3D and LG Optimus with 3D offered 3D-like experiences, but didn't last long on the market because of a lack of 3D content, Llamas said.

Another technology, called Firefly, is activated with a simple, dedicated button push on the side of the phone. Users are connected to image, text (through imaging with the 13-megapixel camera) and audio recognition (through the phone's microphone) capabilities to be able to quickly identify Web and email addresses, phone numbers, QR and barcodes and also 100 million other items like movies, TV shows, songs and products.

While Firefly sounds like the ultimate way to get Fire users to buy Amazon products, it could also work when a user goes into a physical store with a Fire phone to see what Amazon has to offer that's similar to the showroom products. Research shows that when smartphone users enter physical stores to comparison shop, in what's been dubbed "showrooming," they are more apt to buy what's in the store, Ask said.

Still, Firefly will reduce the typical problems associated with shopping on a mobile device (searching for an item, opening an app to buy it) by quickly jumping to Amazon to make the purchase, Llamas said.

"That's Amazon's main strategy with this phone, and they clearly want to capitalize on impulse buys to make it so gosh darn easy for you to buy," Llamas said."They've removed a lot of pain points and tried to make buying as delightful as possible."

Of course, not all Fire phone users may be ready to buy something and might just want to identify a song or movie and find out more information quickly. That kind of service will gratify Fire users and improve Amazon's reputation for being heavily focused on customer service, analysts said.

For example, iHeartRadio used the Firefly SDK, with its built-in music recognizer and music database, to help users identify songs that are playing with the streaming music service. Then, iHeartRadio built a specific Firefly app to quickly let a user create a custom station based on the song just recognized.

Llamas said he's tried Windows Phones in which a user can scan an object's barcode to connect to a Bing search for more information. But in that Windows Phone technology, "what's missing is the final step to click here and send me the product in the mail," Llamas said.

Amazon already supports something similar to Firefly in its free Amazon app for iPhone called Flow. Users can point their iPhone camera at books, DVDs, video games or barcodes and Amazon will find the items on Amazon and save them in a list. From there, they can decide where to buy them from Amazon.

Llamas also said the addition of a Mayday button for 24/7 tech support within 15 seconds on the Fire will be useful, even to savvy phone users.

"I think the Mayday button on the Fire phone should and will be used rather often, even by sophisticated users," he said. "There's a lot of things that are new on the phone and it's untested in the mass market. Some learning with has to take place."

In its online content, Amazon makes a strong pitch for how easy it will be for developers of iOS and Android apps to port them to Fire, noting that most Android apps will already work on Fire. Whether any of the new apps created or even the new Firefly and Dynamic Perspective technologies will draw new customers already dedicated to iOS or Android to buy the Fire remains to be seen.

Llamas said that if even 5% of Amazon's estimated 20 million Prime customers buy a new Fire phone, Amazon would reach a "reasonable" starting number of 1 million sales.

But Ask is unconvinced that the new features will attract that many buyers.

The new Fire goes on sale exclusively at AT&T on July 25 starting at $200 for the 32 GB version on a two-year contract, but Amazon is also advertising an unlocked version for $649.

A free, one-year membership to Amazon Prime valued at $99 will be available for a limited time, giving access to movies, TV shows, books, songs and products and free shipping on purchased products.

Fire has a 4.7-in. HD display and a quad core Snapdragon 2.2 GHz processor. It's runs on the Fire 3.5 mobile operating system, according to an Amazon spokeswomen. The OS is an earlier "version of Android." Amazon's Kindle tablets have also run on Android variants.

Amazon has unveiled its first smartphone, the Fire, with some interesting new features. Do you think the Fire will be a hit or a miss?Is Amazon's new Fire smartphone a hit or miss?

This article, A closer look at the new technologies in Amazon's Fire smartphone , was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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