News that Google is working on 3D smartphones has analysts speculating that the company will one day add the tech to a slew of its products, such as Google Maps, Google Glass, Google robots and even virtual reality tools.
"Google is much more than what it seems," said Scott Strawn, an analyst at IDC. "It is so much more than a search engine. Innovation is really the core of their business. And 3D is going to be a big feature for them."
Google disclosed late Thursday that it has been working on the development of 3D smartphones for the past year. The effort, dubbed Project Tango, aims to enable smartphones to create realistic 3D mapping and virtual experiences -- all while the user goes about her day.
"The goal of Project Tango is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion," wrote Johnny Lee, Google's Project Tango leader, in a blog post. "Our team has been working with universities, research labs, and industrial partners spanning nine countries around the world to harvest research from the last decade of work in robotics and computer vision, concentrating that technology into a unique mobile phone."
Lee added that Google is ready to get early prototypes of the 3D smartphone to developers so they can begin building apps for it.
"What if you never found yourself lost in a new building again? What if directions to a new location didn't stop at the street address?" Lee asked.
While that sounds like an interesting evolution for smartphones, the project also offers an intriguing opportunity for Google to add 3D technology to some of its other products and services, analysts said.
"This type of basic research and innovation is hugely important to Google," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. "It allows them to open up entirely new areas and ecosystems that make their existing tools more valuable. The potential applications for this kind of technology are very wide, of course."
For instance, adding 3D technology to the Google Maps service could enable users to get a more realistic image of where they are or where they're going. 3D imagining could be a natural fit for Google Glass, enhancing the mapping app already in the computerized eyeglasses.
Strawn said 3D smartphones are a stepping stone to a much bigger Google plan -- virtual reality.
"There's a very long-term plan in place at Google and part of that is virtual reality," said Strawn. "Over the long term, providing fully immersive virtual reality is something Google is likely to pursue. To do that, they need to collect a lot of data about the world. With 3D on smartphones, as people are walking around, they're collecting that data for Google."
Google's vision of virtual reality, Strawn said, is like reality as we know it in our everyday lives, making it different than previous virtual reality environments like Second Life.
"Think of the Matrix," he said. "Though it would only be functional for the visual and auditory senses. Full immersion wouldn't be possible for quite some time. What I know is that this works in context with things Google is working on."
Jeff Kagan, an independent analyst, said it's going to take a while before the 3D technology is ready for wide use. However, it could prove a long-term boon to Google, a company already known for big advances.
"Technology like 3D is new. Today there are little or no apps, or reasons to want it," he said.
"Leadership in innovation is key for Google. Without it, they would become an ordinary company very quickly. Google continues to through stuff against the wall to see what sticks. Whatever sticks becomes a hot new business for the company. Whatever doesn't gets closed and they move on. But they keep throwing stuff against that wall," Kagan added.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is email@example.com.