How Google's Project Tango will change your life

Tango-based phones and tablets start emerging this week; here's why Tango will turn your smartphone into a genius phone.

project tango phones
Credit: Google Developers

Project Tango is a Google platform for giving phones and tablets a sense of space.

Right now, your phone can't do this. By this time next year, it probably will.

I love moments like these -- a fundamental technology is poised to change what people do every day and how they do it, yet the general public remains ignorant of what's coming.

That ignorance is about to be shattered. CES will usher in a new awareness about Project Tango. I'll detail below what's going to happen this week. But first, let's understand Tango.

Where Tango comes from

Led by former Microsoft Kinect team member Johnny Lee, the Tango project has been years in the making. In fact, the history of the project is a textbook case for how to transition an idea from concept to the consumer mainstream.

Tango is actually part of Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, which is an R&D outfit Google bought as part of the Motorola buy (and didn't include as part of the Motorola sale to Lenovo).

ATAP is headed by former DARPA chief Regina Dugan, a woman with deep experience bringing far-flung ideas into everyday use. The group is working on futuristic projects like low-cost smart fabrics (Project Jacquard), automatic, non-password authentication (Project Abacus), the modular smartphone (Project Ara) and many others.

Google led the Tango effort by creating prototype devices starting two years ago: the Peanut phone and the Yellowstone tablet. They were created long before Moore's Law drove down prices to a level that could enable actual products -- each device as originally envisioned would have cost thousands of dollars, even if they had been massed produced. But both devices were meant for demos and developers.

Last summer, chip giants Qualcomm and Intel announced Project Tango reference devices for developers to code on using their respective chipsets. And now consumer smartphone and tablet companies are actively working on Tango products.

Tango technology and what it does

Tango works by combining inputs from a range of sensors and processing them into usable information very, very fast. These sensors include a radar-like infrared emitter and infrared camera, which picks up the reflected light. A wide-angle camera adds visual cues about location to the mix. The Tango system also relies on highly accurate accelerometers, gyroscopes and barometers.

Google offers three APIs -- one for game developers, another for using Java to integrate Tango into apps, and another for apps that have their own visualization engine.

Google has already done all the hard work of enabling the Tango platform to work as it does. Developers and hardware makers need only support it. And they are.

It all starts this week

Lenovo is expected to announce on Thursday at CES a new product line based on Tango technology. This is interesting, in part, because Lenovo now owns Motorola, which is the company that started the Tango project. It's possible that Motorola phone and tablet engineering teams have been working on Tango integration for years.

The list of companies working on either reference designs or commercial products based on Tango include (as mentioned) Qualcomm and Intel, as well as Nvidia and LG.

It's reasonable to assume that Google is working on Tango products as well, possibly future Nexus devices. And I think all these companies will announce Tango-powered products this year.

What's Tango for, anyway?

In many ways, Tango takes many of the core abilities that already exist in smartphones and greatly enhances them.

Project Tango enables a mobile device to not only map indoor spaces -- figure out where the floors, walls, ceilings and furniture are -- but to also know the location of the device within that space and its orientation.

Think of Tango as a platform that turns a smartphone into both a Kinect-like device and a Wii-like remote, both working at the same time. (That immediately suggests the use of your own smartphone as a universal peripheral for console video gaming.)

The sensors in your smartphone can already detect orientation based on movement. But these are subject to "drift" because they're estimates based on movement of the phone itself. Tango constantly orients the phone to its actual surroundings for better accuracy.

Beacons can track indoor location -- roughly. Your phone can tell how far away it is from a beacon in a known location. Tango upgrades that ability by not only providing indoor location where nobody bothered to place a beacon, but also more accurate indoor location. It can see the door and the stairs and the flower pot and figure out where it is inside a building. So if you were to "mark" a spot inside a room inside an app to be found by someone else, the next person could not only identify the general area but the exact spot. If a store's app wanted to provide product information for items on the shelf, it could provide it for the product directly in front of you, but not for the product one foot to the right.

A Tango-enabled smartphone or tablet can replace a tape measure.You could measure the size of a TV screen by tapping on one corner, tapping on the far diagonal corner, then getting the screen size. Or you could measure the size of anyone -- or any thing. Or you could use Tango with a drone to make sure the drone never, ever crashes into trees, buildings or people.

The range of applications that Tango enables is breathtaking. For starters, it makes possible the blending of mixed reality and virtual reality via the lower-cost Google Cardboard type of VR headsets. Imagine a VR game where the castle walls or forest trees were actually located where your home's walls and furniture are. So walking around virtual objects means you walk around actual objects.

Or, it could enable HoloLens-like mixed reality on the cheap by using the phone's camera and Tango's ability to locate things (virtual characters could appear to rest upon or hide behind tables, for example). In fact, one of the most impressive Microsoft demos of HoloLens involved a Minecraft experience that appeared to be happening in the real world. Tango engineers show off a similar demo via a tablet.

You could check out how furniture would look in your actual home before buying it. Or you could get an estimate of your home's square footage without actually measuring it.

You could also imagine a photo app that uses Tango's depth perception and distance measurement to simulate shallow depth of field while taking pictures.

These are just a few applications already envisioned. Once Tango tech is built into a large number of devices, the unpredictable imaginations of countless app developers will come up with ideas nobody's thought of yet.

Watch this space for future details about how Tango will watch your space.

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