Google is well-known for working on exploratory products and services.
From internet-carrying balloons to cars that drive themselves, and everything in between. One such innovation was Project Tango - which was rebranded to just Tango. It was part of the same ATAP division that’s currently working on bringing us the first truly modular smartphone. However, in December 2017, Google announced it would shutter and stop supporting Tango on 1 March 2018.
Tango: What was 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 were three main parts to the Tango technology. First, the motion tracking technology. Using a motion tracking camera, 3D depth sensor, accelerometer, barometer, gyroscope and GPS, a Tango-compatible device could tell where it is, and how it’s moving within a specific space or area and which way it’s pointing. Then, that tech was combined with the second and third features: depth perception and area learning.
Tango could 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 remembered where you’ve came from and tracks where you’re going. It could tell where the walls were and how close you were to specific objects. Perhaps more impressive within the depth perception is that it could tell if an object is small and close, or far 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 could you do with it?
Tango’s capabilities were useless; it’s what you could use that information for that makes them truly compelling. Again, there were a couple of key uses for this kind of technology that Google had listed.
For the average consumer, augmented reality was going to be one of the biggest draws for this technology. Because its sensors were so advanced, it could 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 were a few games developed for Tango, one of which was called Bullseye’s Playground which essentially builds an entirely virtual 3D world modelled on a building’s physical layout. Users could 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.
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 could recognize and measure an object regardless of how far away it is, or even if you move during measuring.
Because it could detect surfaces and measure angles etc, it knew how, and what angle, to place the virtual objects. As a basic example, it knew how to orientate a virtual object to lie on a horizontal surface, like the floor, it could place items on a vertical surface, like a wall. Again, you could move your device any which way and it remembers where those surfaces were, and how and where you placed the virtual items.
Tango could 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 could easily find your way using your smartphone. From a business and enterprise standpoint, Tango could be incredibly useful for estate agents, building surveyors, architects, and more.
Tango: Which devices supported it?
As of December 2017, there were only two devices available to buy with Tango support, and that’s the tablet development kit and the Lenovo Phab2 Pro smartphone. The tablet isn't the most impressive device spec-wise, but it’s been made primarily so that developers could 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.
It's built onto a body that’s 15mm thick and weighs less than 400 grams. It has all the sensors and cameras needed to support 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's the Lenovo Phab2 Pro smartphone (which is out) as well as two other phones 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. It costs $100 USD more than the Phab2, while the Phab2 Pro costs $499.
Tango: Why was it shut down?
Google announced it is shutting down Tango on 1 March 2018. The project was one of Google's first attempts at making augmented reality possible on mobile phones. It was introduced in 2014, then became available through developer kits, and eventually landed in some consumer devices last year, before sort of fizzling out. Then, in response to Apple, Google launched ARCore this past summer.
As you might've guessed, ARCore is Android’s version of Apple ARKit. It's a baked-in augmented reality platform that developers can leverage. It's different from Tango, which relies on custom hardware requirements. Sure, ARCore is less powerful than Tango, but that's okay. It's only meant to be more accessible. Google said it will work with 100 million existing and upcoming devices. You can learn more about it from here.
Google just brought ARCore to the Pixel and Pixel 2, so the writing has been on the wall for Tango. Now, Google is confirming what we already figured, by taking down the Tango website and Twitter account. It also said Tango “will not be supported by Google” next year.