The man from Amazon held the phone a few feet in front of a box of raisin bran, like he was going to take a picture of it. Immediately, silver dots appeared on the phone's screen, magically dancing around the edges of the box. Within an instant, the phone recognized the cereal. With the tap of a thumb, the device offered nutritional information, the option to enter it into a fitness app, and, of course, asked if he wanted to buy a box from Amazon.
We were playing with Firefly, a feature on Amazon's new Fire Phone. And I was impressed.
Firefly uses the phone's camera to recognize books, CDs, phone numbers, bar codes and millions of products. It identifies phone numbers and email addresses on posters and signs that may be stapled to a telephone pole or a bulletin board, so you can easily get in touch with -- and remember -- that person advertising an apartment at your local coffee shop.
It also has a Shazam-like feature that can tell you what song is playing, giving you the option to buy the song, album or concert tickets. It can do the same for movies and TV shows.
Firefly is simple to use -- you just hold down the camera button on the side of the phone to activate it.
This sounds really cool, right? Don't get me wrong -- it is. But it's doubtful that this feature -- along with some of the others that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos touted during a press conference here on Wednesday -- will be enough to make you want to buy a phone from Amazon rather than a premium phone from Apple, Samsung, HTC, LG or Motorola.
For some reason, Amazon chose to price its phone the same as flagship smartphones from Apple and Samsung, the undisputed leaders in the U.S. (The Fire Phone, with 32 gigabytes of storage, starts at $199 with a two-year contract, or $649.99 without a contract. For now, it's only available on AT&T.) Since the phone isn't less expensive than rivals, Amazon hopes the features it packed into Fire Phone -- and for now, the free year of Amazon Prime, the company's $99 loyalty program -- will make you choose the Amazon handset.
One of those features is called Dynamic Perspective, which makes some images appear in 3D and allows you to control the phone by tilting your head or wrist. The handset has four cameras on the front of it that can identify where a person's face is relative to the phone. It allows you to easily scroll down Web pages or page through books without flicking your thumb across the glass.
Like Firefly, this feature worked really well for me -- it was like a much better version of the gimmicky eye-tracking feature that was part of the Samsung Galaxy S4. I scrolled down a website by tilting my wrist, and guided a video game snowboarder through turns and a flip, all by moving my head.
Since the four cameras follow the movement of your head, the phone can produce images that appear like they're in 3D, without special glasses. Renderings of New York City buildings look cool in the maps app -- I could look "around" the Chrysler Building -- but it wasn't immediately clear how this was more useful than Google Maps. The most impressive images I saw were of the phone's lock screen -- they appeared to have a depth that's not possible on other smartphones.
But beyond games, and beyond the wow factor of having a pretty picture with depth on your lock screen, the 3D images don't appear especially useful. Amazonis opening these features to third-party developers, meaning other companies can design apps for them, so I'm sure there will be creative ways.
I only got a few minutes with the Fire Phone. The phone feels high-quality. It's a good 40 percent heavier than my iPhone 5S, and it has a bigger screen. But my time with Fire Phone didn't erase my big question: Why would I choose this phone over similarly-priced phones from Samsung, Apple, HTC, Motorola or LG? Amazon's app store is growing, but at 240,000 apps, it's a fraction of the size of Google's and Apple's. Firefly is really cool, but I can't see myself using it regularly. I don't have kids, and I don't actually buy that much stuff. And while I order regularly from Amazon, I still go to the grocery store.
The same can be said for Dynamic Perspective. Scrolling by tilting your head is nice, and the auto scroll feature, which allows you to read a book or a long article without moving your head, finger or wrist at all, seems useful. But none of these are game-changing.
And in today's intensely competitive smartphone market, where smartphones are becoming increasingly similar, you need a game-changing feature, or a game-changing price, to pull people away from their beloved Androids and iPhones.