One of Google’s lesser-known experimental projects is Project Tango: 3D-scanning smartphones and tablets that use advanced cameras and depth sensors to quickly create 3D models of the environment around them.
Google has partnered with universities, research labs and industrial partners to work towards a goal of giving mobile devices a “human-scale understanding of space and motion.” One day, Google wants to move Project Tango from prototype to a mainstream consumer device, so everyone can carry one of these 3D scanners in their pockets — a strategy underlined earlier this month when Google moved Project Tango from its experimental Advanced Technology and Projects Group (ATAP) into “a new home within Google” itself.
Very few of the development kits are out in the wild (only up to about 500,) but we visited London-based mobile marketing agency Somo, one of Project Tango’s development partners. The agency couldn’t tell us which clients it will be letting loose on the device, but its roster includes companies such as BP, Audi, and De Beers.
Somo has one of the 7″ tablet development kits. It runs Android and is powered by an impressive NVIDIA Tegra K1 processor and comes with 4GB of RAM.
From left-to-right on the back of the device, Project Tango has an infrared camera and depth sensor, a fish-eye lens that allows for 180-degree tracking, and an infrared projector.
It might not look it, but Project Tango is an extremely clever device. It knows where it is all the time, even in aeroplane mode, due to the gyroscope, sensors, and camera, which make 250,000 3D measurements every time you move the device. It allows you to map out your surroundings in 3D and its depth sensors can accurately give you an idea of the distance between two objects. And all of that comes in the size of a small — albeit a little chunky — tablet, similar to the size and feel of the kind of sub-$US100-$US150 tablet you can buy today.
You don’t just have to map out whole rooms, you can even map out individual objects or people. But rather than buying a $US50,000 laser scanner, the Project Tango Development Kits currently cost £1,000 ($US1,523). What’s really impressive is the speed with which it builds its augmented reality. Just a couple of light wrist flicks and Noreen from Somo’s (thanks for volunteering) whole face was mapped out — no waiting around for processing and loading.
A room takes about five minutes. The only problem at the moment is drift as you walk around, trying to keep the tablet at a steady level, meaning bits of chairs can end up looking like they’re floating in mid-air.
Once you’ve mapped out a room, you can even overlay the colour camera. So you could have a whole 3D colour map of an environment. It’s something Target did last year, turning its stores into icy playgrounds,where you could throw virtual snowballs at a cuddly T-Rex.
The first use case that immediately sprang into my mind is for real estate agents: Rather than having to rely on those awful 360-degree (sometimes doctored) panoramic shots of the property you’re considering buying on a real estate agent’s website, you could get a perfect sense of what the “airy” hallway actually looks like and whether you can fit your 5-piece sofa inside the lounge.
Naji El-Arifi, Somo’s product innovation manager, told us: “Augmented reality will take off in a big way. Instead of scanning a 2D poster, or edge-tracking [an augmented reality object] around a 2D surface, this will be much better; you could place a life-sized car on the table.”
He encourages us to think big about the use cases for Project Tango: “Anyone who sells a real product or owns a large space could find this useful.”
Examples he cited include: A field worker being able to overlay information on to an actual 3D object; a retail store being 3D-mapped so staff know exactly where to go or where a customer is without the need for beacons or GPS; consumers being able to scan and quickly 3D print any object; the device could also be attached to drones.
At the moment, all the easily comprehensible ideas for Project Tango appear rooted in business — particularly because the demos we were looking at were impressively quick, but weren’t particularly sexy. El-Arifi showed us how it could be integrated into gaming, too — although it’s not quite clear why that particular game needed to be in the 3D-environment (a criticism I’ve often leveled at augmented reality games.)
He also explained how being able to quickly map out an area could be helpful in situations where mobile signal is minimal — people on desert trails, mountain treks, space probes or even just less exotic mobile blackspots.
Google is understood to be working with LG to make a consumer version of Project Tango, penned for release later this year. It won’t be for everyone: The device will probably retail within the region of $US1,200 and there will need to be far more compelling use cases spanning gaming, mapping and general utility to really excite consumers. But it’s in the enterprise where Project Tango could really take off.
And with research and development partners including Bosch, Nvidia and Flyby, it’s easy to see a future in which portable 3D-mapping and scanning becomes commonplace within businesses. It might not be something people use everyday, but Project Tango could turn what we know as augmented reality into something everyday people use.
Here’s one of Google’s official marketing video for the prototype, showing the device in action: