Amazon’s new Fire Phone comes courtesy of secretive Lab126, with offices in Cambridge

amazon fire

Amazon’s new Fire Phone isn’t shy about capitalizing on what the company does best — cloud services, easy purchases, and a growing library of streaming movies, music, and books. It also capitalized on the company’s secretive Cambridge brain trust at the company’s Lab126, which also has offices in Cupertino, Sunnyvale, and Seattle.

Brad Stone, who wrote the Amazon/Jeff Bezos biography The Everything Storewrites that it was at Lab126, a skunkworks for Amazon’s hardware, that radical ideas were turned into the polished final product debuted today:

The smartphone project has been one of the longest in development at Lab126. Interviews with multiple Lab126 employees over the course of many months—all conducted with promises of anonymity because Amazon fiercely guards such information—suggest that the phone project was started as far back as 2009. One of the inspirations was this famous video by hacker Johnny Chung Lee, now an employee of Google (GOOG), who demonstrated that by reversing the position of sensors on the Nintendo (7974:JP) Wii, you could create a display that tracked people’s heads and presented images that moved along with their vantage points. It effectively created a 3D display without the need for special glasses.

The Amazon smartphone took off from there. It was at one point code-named Tyto, after a genus of owl. The project was accompanied inside Lab126 by a lower-cost smartphone design without the 3D effect, code-named Otus, for another owl genus. That Amazon would name its smartphone projects after birds of prey may not come as a surprise to anyone who’s paid attention to the company over the years.

Bezos himself spent part of last summer with Lab126, which may have sped things along and instigated the current flood of hardware roll-outs.

There’s been hints at an Amazon phone for a while (it wasn’t exactly a huge leap given their frontal assault on the tablet market), and Scott Kirsner noted the secretiveness around Amazon’s local operations:

But how’s this for secretive? Current and former employees are forbidden from talking about what happens at the Cambridge office, and the company won’t even tell prospective employees what they’d be working on, if hired. In fact, according to my sources, Amazon employees on two teams in Cambridge can’t even tell each other what they’re up to.

Amazon still hasn’t made a public statement about even the existence of the Cambridge office, nor has it returned my phone calls or e-mails since I first broke the news in late 2011 that it was coming to Massachusetts.

So naturally, I’m insanely curious.

Given that most of the big details of the phone, including the four-frontal camera interface and 3D parallax effects, leaked early, it’s debatable how successful they were, but early impressions of the phone seem to indicate a strong debut in a field that is incredibly tough to crack (Palm, which I think had some of the best ideas and decades of experience, failed miserably tackling a market that was even more fluid than it is today).

And Amazon is playing to its strengths, focusing on the media ecosystem it’s already built and using Fire’s Android underpinnings to woo developers.

But now that we’ve finally seen the Fire Phone, what’s next from Kendall’s quiet Amazon denizens? It could be quite interesting down the road. A peak at current local Lab126’ers shows mobile and embedded expertise, but also a whole new area the company seems primed to enter, based on staff: Medical tech. Paging Dr. Bezos?

And below, a picture from simpler times during one of Kirsner’s reconnoissance missions:


Michael Morisy is the founder and former editor of BetaBoston. Follow him on Twitter at @Morisy or email him at [email protected].
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