Google and Lenovo team up to bring Project Tango to consumers

LAS VEGAS — Depth-based applications, which allow mobile devices to create 3D models of their surroundings and place virtual objects within them, are clearly a hot topic and major area of investment for smartphone companies and their technology suppliers. Google’s Project Tango has broken new ground in allowing the real time creation of 3D models of a user’s surroundings, but Intel’s somewhat similar RealSense modules have already been embedded in many devices. Until now, Tango has been hampered by the high-cost and large form-factor of its developer version. That changed tonight when Lenovo announced that it would be building a consumer-ready, phone-form-factor version of Tango — in cooperation with Google — for sale this summer.

Why having a 3D-capable device matters

At the joint announcement, Google’s Johnny Lee led the audience through a brief history of the applications that depth-enabled applications like those on Google’s Project Tango make possible. Tango extends the notions of position and navigation that we have become familiar with outdoors using GPS to indoor spaces. Lee demonstrated how he could quickly measure the height of a window or ceiling, the size of a rug, or the area of a piece of furniture. Beyond that, his demos included flying virtual appliances into an apartment to see if they fit (an important one for Google partner Lowe’s) and a virtual Jenga tower floating in the air. Key to all of these is the real-time ability of Tango to not just create a depth map of its surroundings, but turn it into a 3D model of the space — enabling object placement, as well as navigation, within the space.

Delivering will be a lot harder than demoing

Delivering all this capability to consumers in a smartphone first and foremost requires a lot of work on the underlying technology. Lenovo and Google have re-engineered the layout of the three cameras needed for Tango (a traditional camera, a depth camera, and a fisheye camera) and re-oriented the PCB and other components of the device to fit in a phone form factor and still dissipate enough heat to keep the final version running.

The substantial processing power needed to run depth-enabled applications in real time will be provided by a Qualcomm Snapdragon SoC. The phone is expected to be available this summer and priced under $500. Along with the announcement of the phone, Lenovo and Google put out a call for app developers to create solutions it can showcase on the phone when it is ships. Those interested can submit through Google’s Tango incubator site.

Along with creating compelling applications for Tango and getting the hardware shrunk to the size of a phone, the largest challenge will be the user experience. Lenovo’s Jeff Meredith was quick to point out that the new phone’s design has been driven by user experience requirements. However, there is currently a core issue with Tango applications: They just aren’t as easy as the demos make them look. I took a Tango developer tablet and spent some time building a 3D model over various rooms, to see for myself. It took a lot of practice before I learned how fast I could move the device so that the model wasn’t a mess. Even then, if I wasn’t careful about how I scanned a room, the piece of it would overlap each other in unnatural ways.

Photo credit: David Cardinal