Project Tango, like all the best experimental Google initiatives, is hard to explain. Essentially it lets devices know where they are in three dimensional space. You could think of it roughly as an interior 3D mapping and location technology that lets software track where something is, and how its moving around.
Until now, it's mostly been limited to theoretical uses. But thanks to a competition that pitted developers against each other to come up with real-world uses, you can now get a pretty good sense of why Google thinks its so promising and how it might fit in your life. Check it out.
At its heart, Tango is a location service; the best analog right now might be Bluetooth beacons — think GPS, but for indoors. But while beacons rely on Bluetooth technology and can only give approximations of where a device is in its relation to beacons, Tango uses cameras, depth sensors, and spatial recognition and motion learning tech to determine where a device is with much greater three dimensional accuracy, and how it's moving through space. And it can do this on its own - the device itself determines spatial location, rather than relying on signals from beacons.
Intel and Qualcomm are already developing concept phones with Tango technology, so it's possible that this feature will become common in Android phones. The technology sounds impressive, but it's also very hard to visualize -- or to even imagine what it might be used for. So, Google crowdsourced ideas and held a competition for Tango developers.
Out of close to 200 entrants, Google crowned one overall winner, and best-of-categories in entertainment, utility, and VR/AR. These winners provide a pretty good clue of where Tango is going.
"It's VR on steroids," said Steve Ulrich, one of the two developers of the game WeR Cubed, which won the overall prize in the competition. "This could work really for moving puzzles around in the real world."
WeR Cubed is, essentially, a Rubik's cube that you see hanging in mid-air through a a screen. The way it uses the Tango technology — and the reason it won Google's competition — is by making players actually walk around the puzzle to solve it. It's fixed in space, so to solve each side, you need to actually be looking at it instead of swiping it around.
"I can imagine location-based, augmented reality treasure hunts," said Larry Yang, Lead Product Manager for Project Tango, of how future games might work. But he also thinks the technology could have some real utility. "I want to see people ... walk into a shopping mall and be able to type in, 'where is the Starbucks?' and get detailed directions," he said, adding that "there's going to be a huge market around measurements."
Measurements is the purely useful application for Project Tango right now. Yang envisions being able to point a phone at an empty wall, having your phone automatically measure the wall, and then being able to go to a store and find out whether the couch you like will fit against it.
Rafael Spring is the founder and CTO of DotProduct, whose Project Tango competition entry, an app called Phi3D, won in the "Utility" category. Phi3D is a modeling software that enables users to walk around the room and create a 3D model of what's inside, including precise measurements and coordinates.
Currently, Google has distributed the beta version of Project Tango to more than 4,000 developers, and the company hopes to get it to even more. In a few weeks, Google will cut the price of the Tango developer kit (which is currently $512) by 50% for a limited time to drum up more enthusiasm — and uses — for the nascent tech.
"For developers that want to create new experiences, this is the sweet spot," said Google's Yang. "The use cases are windows into virtual world — we want to capture the enthusiasm around the concept to inspire other developers to create the future."
Brendan Klinkenberg is a tech reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Brendan Klinkenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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