RED finally reveals what its ‘holographic’ phone screen actually is

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A couple of months ago, cinema camera maker RED made the surprise announcement that it was working on a smartphone, and the even more surprising announcement that said phone would have a “holographic” display. What RED did not announce, however, is what that technology actually involves, even as the $1,195 Hydrogen One phone went up for pre-order essentially sight unseen.

Well, now we have an answer: RED’s screen technology comes from an exclusive partnership with a startup called Leia Inc. (Yes, like the princess.) Leia describes itself as “the leading provider of lightfield holographic display solutions for mobile,” and was founded in 2014 as a spin-off from HP’s research labs. RED has made an undisclosed strategic investment in Leia as part of the partnership.

So, how does the tech work? It’s impossible to show it off on a regular screen, of course, so here’s Leia’s description:

Leia leverages recent breakthroughs in Nano-Photonic design and manufacturing to provide a complete lightfield “holographic” display solution for mobile devices, through proprietary hardware and software. The Silicon Valley firm commercializes LCD-based mobile screens able to synthesize lightfield holographic content while preserving the normal operation of the display.

And here’s a concept video from a couple of years ago:

The idea is that the screen projects 3D objects that you can view from different angles based on your physical position. For example, a mapping application could theoretically look like a little model of a city with buildings poking out of the screen. You’d then be able to interact with the objects “above” the display through hover gestures enabled by Leia’s partnership with Synaptics.

The technology works through diffraction, producing a lightfield illumination with a layer of nanostructures added to a conventional LCD. Leia claims this “diffractive lightfield backlighting” layer doesn’t significantly compromise the display’s quality, battery consumption, or thickness for non-holographic use.

How well does this work in practice? Very few people know for sure. One is YouTuber and noted RED shooter Marques Brownlee, who checked out a few Hydrogen One prototypes last month. Brownlee, better known as MKBHD, said he was “pretty impressed” by the display, but that it “definitely wasn’t perfect” with some stuttering and light bleed issues. You can get an idea of what he’s talking about in the video below of a Leia display prototype demonstrated in May (without the benefit of seeing it in 3D, of course):

RED president Jarred Land says Brad Pitt and David Fincher are also impressed, for whatever that’s worth.

Even if the tech works great, though — and that’s a big if — RED and Leia will need to have a credible array of content lined up for the Hydrogen One if the screen is to be anything more than a gimmick. “The Hydrogen program will feature stunning holographic content and 3D sound for movie viewing, interactive gaming, social messaging and mixed reality,” according to RED’s statement today, but it’s not clear where any of that is going to come from.

Still, the Hydrogen One continues to be one of the more intriguing devices on the horizon, and RED can’t be faulted on ambition. We’ll see how its holographic vision shakes out when the phone launches in the first half of 2018, which might represent a delay from RED’s previous language of “early 2018.”

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