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Google phone project could transform smartphones

Project Tango redefines what smartphones are capable of

February 22, 2014 07:01 AM ET

Computerworld - A slew of cool new smartphones are expected to debut at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week. But Google has already unveiled what is almost certainly the most interesting phone of the year.

Part of what Google is calling Project Tango, the phone has special sensors and chips that enable it to map indoor spaces.

Project Tango phone
Google's Project Tango phone has Kinect-like sensors for mapping 3D spaces.

The Project Tango phone runs Google's Android, and comes with a developer kit for the creation of apps that use the sensors. Google this week invited developers to submit proposals for what they might do with Project Tango, and in March the company will handpick just 200 developers to pursue their projects.

The initiative is comparable to Google's Glass Explorer program, which started out with "tryouts." First, people from a variety of creative fields were asked to post on social media what they would do with Glass, then "winners" were selected and invited to pay $1,500 per headset for the privilege of participation. Google also offered attendees of its 2012 Google I/O developers conference the opportunity to sign up for Google Glass.

The Project Tango contest is smaller and focused on developers. But the aim is to leverage the creativity of some developers to define what might be possible with the Tango system.

Project Tango is actually a collaboration between "universities, research labs, and industrial partners spanning nine countries around the world," but headed by Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. The group used to be part of Motorola, and Google is hanging on to ATAP as it sells the Motorola handset business to China's Lenovo. The group's chief, Regina Dugan, used to work as a DARPA director.

How Project Tango works

Like all good smartphones, the Project Tango phones have built-in gyroscopes and compasses, so the phone knows which direction it's pointing in and how its orientation is changed when you move it around.

In addition, Tango phones have sensors that have been compared to those in Microsoft's Kinect gaming product. In fact, the project is headed by a former Kinect team leader. On the back, the phone has a four-megapixel camera, a depth sensor and a dedicated motion-tracking camera. The sensors can tell where the floor and ceiling are, where the walls and doors are, and where objects are located inside a room.

This information is combined with the phone's orientation sensor data to enable the phone to not only create a 3D map of an indoor space, but also pinpoint its location within that space.

One of the astonishing feats of Tango, according to Google, is that it can take "a quarter million 3D measurements every single second," according to a video posted on the Google Tango site.

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