While most smartphones being released now are just iterative, boasting better specs than existing models but not offering much in the way of all-new innovation, Google’s ATAP (advanced technology and projects) division has snuck in with Project Tango.

Google has collaborated with partners from around the world, including Bosch and Jet Propulsion Laboratories, to put together a phone that has a special set of features that can be used for mapping the world around it. Existing  smartphones all have gyroscopes and accelerometers to detect when they’re being moved, but they can’t “see” where they’re being moved. Project Tango, though, adds some eyes to the spatial awareness equation. It’s got a camera and depth sensor that work in unison to track the phone’s movement and create a 3D model of the world around it. The system is capable of taking measurements 250 000 times a second – so that means a high-resolution virtual recreation of your surroundings will be recreated in the phone’s memory.

The implications are fantastic. First of all, Google could use this data – where applicable – to help create more detailed indoor maps for Google Maps. Now you can get navigation that takes you from home to the mall, and then walking directions from the entrance of the mall to the exact shop that has a deal you saw on Google search.

An even more futuristic example is a fully-modelled world, with interiors of buildings, to assist disabled people. One case is in Google’s video for Project Tango, where it highlights the benefits for blind people using such a device to get around and be informed of what is around them by a phone that can see and understand what it’s looking at.

There are also Google’s recent acquisitions, which could also benefit from this kind of technology. It now owns Boston Dynamics, the company behind scarily efficient robots, as well as artificial intelligence startup, DeepMind. Think of what those two, combined, could do with 3D maps of the real world. And let’s not forget about its self-driving cars. This really isn’t helping the rumour that Google is actually Skynet.

Naturally, the company is erring away from those visions of smart robots that know what’s around them, and focussing on more human-friendly  use cases, such as even more immersive augmented reality apps. The prototype device will be seeded to 200 handpicked developers, for now, and those who are interested working with the technology and contributing to the project can apply on the Project Tango page.

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.