Google is finally realizing its vision for 3D-sensing smartphones.
Lenovo’s Phab2 Pro, the first smartphone to be equipped with Google’s Project Tango technology, is now on sale. The phone’s unique combination of cameras and sensors allow it to take advantage of augmented reality applications that aren’t possible on other devices.
Originally started as an experimental project in Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, Tango devices are equipped with motion and depth sensors, along with computer vision software, which allow for richer AR experiences than those that rely on a typical smartphone camera alone.
For instance, an app from Lowes enables you to visualize how furniture and appliances will look in your house before you buy them. And an app from Google, aptly called Measure, allows you to measure distances and objects by pointing your phone at them.
There are also a ton of games that allow you to interact with virtual objects — like dominoes and Hot Wheels cars — on top of your physical environment. (In total, there are already nearly three dozen Tango-ready apps that will be available when the phone ships.)
These apps take a fair bit more computing power than the typical smartphone app so, not surprisingly, the $499 Phab2 Pro is absolutely massive, with a 6.4-inch display — huge even by 2016 phablet standards — and weighing more than half a pound.
But Lenovo and Google are hoping the apps — niche as some of them are — will help bring the technology into the mainstream. Having tried a few Tango apps already, the case for the technology does seem like a compelling one, even if the phones may be too clunky for the average smartphone buyer. Still, being able to accurately measure and visualize objects in your real world space or playing a game with virtual objects that appear as though they are right in front of you, could have some compelling use cases in schools and professional settings, if nothing else.
Right now, the Phab2 Pro is the only Tango-ready consumer device but Google says it expects more devices to be released by other manufacturers within the next year, though the company won’t yet say who its other partners may be.
Whether or not the Tango smartphones go mainstream though, the technology has a promising future, particularly in virtual reality applications.
Google’s Johnny Lee, Tango’s director of engineering, says the team, no longer part of ATAP, is now part of Google’s Daydream virtual reality team. And while Tango is for the moment only being used for augmented reality applications, the company is looking at how the platform’s computer vision capabilities could be leveraged for virtual reality.
“We definitely are excited about the future of how the technologies of VR and Tango ultimately come together,” Lee said. “When I think of Tango, it’s a tracking technology and we’ve done a lot of hard work in reducing the cost, reducing the power, increasing the performance to hit phones. A lot of the work that we’re doing will enable inside out tracking in VR. As Daydream matures and as Tango matures, there’s an obvious crossroads that we’re excited about.”
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