Amazon Fire Gives Developers Chance to Enliven 3D Market: Tech

Jul 11, 2014 6:22 am ET

July 11 (Bloomberg) -- Mobile software makers are looking to Amazon.com Inc. and its Fire phone to do what predecessors have failed to accomplish: drum up demand for 3D devices and applications.

When it comes to phones, 3D isn’t just about adding depth to images. The Fire, which starts shipping July 25, has sensors that respond to how users hold, view or move the phone. Four sets of cameras and infrared lights track users’ motions with special software -- letting players zoom into games like the upcoming “Saber’s Edge” by bringing their heads closer to the screen or peek into a map in Yelp Inc.’s app to view ratings.

Developers are counting on Amazon’s combination of marketing muscle and scale to promote 3D, which so far has mostly landed with a thud. Phonemakers including HTC Corp. and LG Electronics Inc. already had released about two dozen 3D phones and none has been a big hit. Consumers willing to pay extra for that third dimension in movie theaters aren’t doing the same for their TVs, laptops or mobile devices. Today, 3D accounts for less than 0.5 percent of all mobile apps released in the Apple App Store and Google Play, according to analysis company App Annie.

“Maybe Amazon can change it,” Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics LLC, said in an interview. “Depending on how successful the Fire is, that’s the way the market might go. Everybody’s waiting to see how it works out.”

‘Extremely Dedicated’

Hibernum Creations, maker of the “Saber’s Edge” puzzle game, is dedicating as much as a third of its 150 employees to work on mobile apps for the Fire, Chief Brand Officer Louis-Rene Auclair said in an interview. The Canadian company, which already has made 2D and 3D games for other devices and has worked with Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner Inc., sees Amazon’s phones a potentially big opportunity.

“It’s a whole new market,” he said. “Amazon customers are extremely dedicated, and they want a device like this.”

Other 3D app makers are holding out. Intel Corp. has recently released Pocket Avatars, a mobile-messaging app that captures a user’s facial expressions and head movements to create personalized 3D video animated messages using avatar characters. The app, made for some iOS and Android devices, uses a single camera, not Amazon’s so-called dynamic perspective technology.

“Many companies tried to ship devices with 3D screens, and they’ve been a major failure,” Mike Bell, a vice president at Intel, said in an interview. “Until we see the devices gain traction, we wouldn’t spend the time to make it work on a device like that.

‘‘It’s like 3D televisions -- three years ago at CES you’d have thought everyone will be having them in their living room, and today no one is talking about them,” he said, referring to the technology industry’s annual gadget showcase.

‘Relatively Light’

Forecasts for the Fire’s sales vary, with JPMorgan Chase & Co. analyst Doug Anmuth expecting the smartphone to sell 2 million to 3 million units this year, while Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst Colin Sebastian said in an e-mail he expects “relatively light demand for the phone.” Apple Inc. sold 150 million iPhones last year.

Representatives for Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment.

What Amazon has on its side is persistence and marketing power. The new phone is advertised on Amazon’s home page, the 10th-most-visited website in the world, according to Alexa.com. The Amazon Appstore figures to be a prominent place to display Fire phone apps. Amazon has used its influence to help promote its devices in the past, making the Kindle the most popular device for reading e-books in the U.S. and helping Amazon become the leading seller of e-books.

‘Great Ecosystem’

“A company like Amazon, they know how to sell products. That creates a great ecosystem and a great environment,” said Mel Kirk, a vice president at games maker Zen Studios, which is developing games compatible with the Fire phone.

While Amazon helped create the e-reader category with the Kindle, the smartphone market is already well-developed, as was the tablet market when the company introduced the Kindle Fire in 2011 to compete with Apple’s iPad. In the first quarter, Amazon was the world’s fifth-largest tablet maker, with less than 2 percent worldwide market share, far behind Apple’s 32.5 percent, according to researcher IDC.

Still, the introduction of the Fire phone gives developers an opportunity to be the first to create apps for a new device with technology that differs from that of its largest competitors, gaining attention from consumers looking for software to try.

More Profitable

“When you can be involved in the early stages, it’s pretty easy for us to see a value proposition,” Kirk said. “We always have a really good effect when we get a game to the market before everybody else. An empty store is a great opportunity.”

Another incentive to create apps for the Fire is that developers have found Amazon’s users more profitable. Backflip Studios in Boulder, Colorado, has discovered that consumers who buy its apps on Amazon tend to spend 50 percent more money on in-game features than users who buy it in other Android stores, said Dale Thoms, co-founder of Backflip.

“We wanted to be part of the early adopters for this device, because we think it has a lot of potential,” Chris Goody, gameplay engineer at Backflip, said in an interview. “We don’t jump at every opportunity. Amazon has the promotion capability to sell a ton of these devices.” Backflip has tweaked its “DragonVale” game for the Fire, so it can track the position of players’ heads to control the camera in the imaginary world, where users raise baby dragons.

More Sophistication

Some 3D developers are charging for the apps, and prices vary widely. Many offer their apps for free and charge for extra features.

If the 3D feature finds favor with consumers, Apple and Samsung Electronics Co., which dominate the smartphone market, could adopt it as well, said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group.

“If you are projecting out two to five years, it is possible that developers will see opportunity,” Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said in an interview. “There have to be enough users there for them to make an effort.”

If the Fire catches on, it could lead to even more sophisticated 3D technology. Future Amazon phones could allow for more complex tracking and understanding of the human face, said Hoyt David Morgan, chief executive officer of Nitoapp.com, a maker of 3D apps that’s considering making Fire apps. Someday a phone could track a user’s eyeballs to control a game or scroll through Web pages, he said.

“It will give us the power to put users in really cool augmented reality experiences -- a haunted house, in a jungle,” he said.