Lenovo’s announcement at CES back in January that it would bring the first Project Tango enabled smartphone to market before the end of 2016 was a rather big deal.
It was a vital proof-point that the 3D space mapping and tracking technology Google has been working on to enable augmented reality (AR) applications to work indoors for some time now, was moving from an ambitious project to a real product.
That journey took another step forward last night, when the companies demonstrated Tango in action to us and a select group of media outlets by means of a AR assisted mini walkthrough of Barcelona’s Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
If you don’t know what Tango is, here’s a quick primer.
Tango enables (and I’m giving you the most simplistic explanation possible here) augmented reality experiences to take place in environments where more regular ways of discerning a person or device’s location (like GPS or proximity to a beacon) in a space cannot be sensed.
An even simpler way of putting this would be to say that it allows for Google Maps and classic Google Glasses-type functionality to exist indoors, where there’s no GPS signal and where rigging an area up with tons of electronic beacons might be cost prohibitive.
The demo was simple, conducted in two parts and featured one of the first apps to be built using Tango, namely GuidiGO.
By holding the current Tango development hardware (a seven-inch tablet and sadly, not Lenovo’s upcoming smartphone) up in front of us with the camera facing the floor, we were able to gaze through Tango’s lens and follow a blue dotted line to a predefined place in the museum.
Once we arrived at our destination – a rather larger painting – we were able to point the tablet’s camera a different parts of the painting and tap on highlighted areas we saw through the ‘Project Tango’ lens in order to get a narrative or some additional information about those different parts of the artwork.
The demo then proceeded to guide us to a second artwork, highlighting similar aspects of the painting, before moving us back to the start point.
While it was neat, it was by no means an overwhelming experience for those folks struggling to grasp Tango’s true value.
For those of us that knew what was going on in the background it was a pretty big deal, though.
That’s because Tango managed to get all of this done in an indoor environment where it had no GPS coverage and no array of beacons to rely on. All of its space sensing and tracking ability stems from what it ‘sees’ through the tablet’s camera lens.
Its sole way of discerning our location in the museum was the Tango hardware itself – matching what it was ‘seeing’ to a previous ‘scan’ of the area captured before our walk-through.
It’s particularly cool if you consider what this will enable when it gains momentum.
Tango will allow AR applications – navigation being just one of them – to be used in underground metro stations, inside shopping centres, parking garages (yay, no more losing your car after a shopping trip) and other interesting environments.
Working around the limitations of GPS coverage is just one aspect of it though.
Where GPS isn’t available, sensing a device’s proximity to an array of beacons is employed.
But that’s expensive, meaning the vast majority of places that would benefit from an AR type application won’t, because there’s questionable return on investment.
With Tango the only investment is the development of the application and the ‘scanning’ of an area required to build-up that 3D mesh of the space. It’s quite literally a game changer.
So what can we expect next?
Well, there’s very little new news. All we know is that Lenovo’s device is due out in the US summer of 2016, that the device will cost under $500 (R7 617,37) to the end user and have a smaller than 6.5-inch screen.
We’ll be pushing Lenovo for more info throughout Mobile World and will report back if there’s any news to report.