Google is well-known for working on highly exploratory products and services. From internet-carrying balloons to cars that drive themselves, and everything in between. One such innovation is Project Tango - now rebranded to just Tango - which is part of the same ATAP division that’s currently working on bringing us the first truly modular smartphone.
With the recent announcement from Lenovo that it's bringing the first Tango-equipped phone to market, you're probably curious as to exactly what it is.
Tango: What is it?
To explain Tango in its most basic form - It’s giving devices the ability to see and understand their surroundings in a similar way to how we do. That means building a custom set of sensors and a processor that can connect the various sources of information, and understand it all.
There are three main parts to the Tango technology. First is the motion tracking technology. Using a motion tracking camera, 3D depth sensor, accelerometer, barometer, gyroscope and GPS, a Project Tango-compatible device can tell where it is, and how it’s moving within a specific space or area and which way it’s pointing.
When combined with the second and third features - depth perception and area learning - it can understand the space you’re moving with great accuracy. So if you’re holding it while walking through a narrow corridor and turn a corner, it remembers where you’ve come from and tracks where you’re going. It can even tell where the walls are, and how close you are to specific objects.
Perhaps more impressive within the depth perception is that it can tell whether an object is small and close, or far away and large. It calculates both distance between you and the object, the object’s size, and where it sits in relation to other items in the area.
Tango: What can I do with it?
In and of themselves, Tango’s capabilities are useless, it’s what you can use that information for that makes them truly compelling. Again, there are a couple of key uses for this kind of technology that Google has listed so far.
For the average consumer, augmented reality is going to be one of the biggest draws for this technology. Because its sensors are so advanced, it can use the cameras to detect the surroundings, and then place virtual items in the scene in relation to the real life physical objects. That could be something as useful as placing a virtual desk or coffee table in a room to see how it would look, or more interactive gamified items.
There are a few games already developed for Project Tango, one of which is called Bullseye’s Playground which essentially builds an entirely virtual 3D world modelled on a building’s physical layout. Users can then interact with characters or throw snowballs and find various surprises on the way. Google partnered with Target in the States to offer an in-store experience to its walk-in customers using this app.
Project Tango will also let users measure objects accurately. You could measure a table, as an example, using augmented reality to draw a joining line between one end and the other. And what’s great is that - because of its motion tracking and area learning technology - you don’t have to hold the device completely still. It can recognize and measure an object regardless of how far away it is, or even if you move during measuring.
What’s more, because it can detect surfaces and knows and measure angles etc. it knows how, and what angle, to place the virtual objects. As a basic example, it knows how to orientate a virtual object to lie on a horizontal surface, like the floor, it can place items on a vertical surface, like a wall or a chair leg. Again, you can move your device any which way and it remembers where those surfaces are, and how and where you placed the virtual items.
Tango can also be used to accurately map indoor locations, potentially expanding Google Maps’ knowledge to reach inside buildings. So if you’re in a particularly huge shopping centre and it’s been mapped using Google’s Tango, you can easily find your way using your smartphone.
From a business and enterprise standpoint, Tango could be incredibly useful for estate agents, building surveyors, architects or interior designers who want a more visual way to measure buildings.
Tango: Which devices support it?
As of right now, there’s one device available to buy with Tango support, and that’s the tablet development kit. It’s not the most impressive device spec-wise, but it’s been made primarily so that developers can build apps and programs that make the most of the project’s capabilities.
The tablet itself features a 7-inch full HD display with Corning Gorilla Glass, built onto a body that’s 15mm thick and weighs less than 400 grams. It has all the sensors and cameras needed to support Project Tango, including a custom NVIDIA Tegra K1 processor and a huge 128GB storage for storing all the data captured and 4GB RAM. It ships with a charging unit, mini dock, USB cable and card removal tool, and costs £256.00 when it’s in stock on Google’s online store.
For the average consumer, there will be three other devices coming very soon, all launched at Lenovo's Tech World opening keynote on June 9th. The flagship of these three smartphones is called the Phab2 Pro, which comes - like every other Tango device - with all the sensors and cameras required to measure areas, depth and so forth.
Looking at it from a purely specification perspective, the Phab2 Pro comes with a huge QHD resolution 6.4-inch screen using Lenovo's intelligent assertive display technology which can adjust temperatures based on ambient lighting. Inside the phone is a Snapdragon 652 processor which is capable of dealing with all the location, depth and movement data simultaneously as well as fast 4G LTE capabilities. What's more, the phone has Dolby Audio Capture 5.1 to record really clear and immersive 5.1 channel audio using three onboard microphones and spatial capture with noise reduction.
Like any Tango phone it has the depth and motion sensing cameras on the back, alongside the 16MP RGB camera on the back, while an 8MP camera on the front ensures you should get decent selfies too.
Lenovo has two other phones alongside the Phab2 Pro, called the Phab2 Plus and Phab2. The latter of those is the budget $199 USD model which comes with a 6.4-inch 720p display, 13MP camera, 32GB storage and MicroSD card expansion. The Phab2 Plus is more photography focused, and has two 13MP cameras on the back with fast f/2.0 lenses, instant focus and paired with the same Fujitsu Milbeaut image signal processor used in Leica cameras. It will cost $100 USD more than the Phab2, while the Phab2 Pro will be $499 when it goes on sale near the end of the year.