Project Tango is an undertaking by Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP), formerly a division of Motorola, with the “goal of giving mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion”. On the surface that sounds academic and boring, but start to peel away the layers and start looking at potential applications. and some amazing things come to mind.
Currently Project Tango is just that, an internal project being worked on by a group inside Google. It doesn’t stop there. According to Google’s Johnny Lee, the ATAP-Project Tango Team has been working with universities, research labs, and industrial partners across nine countries. They’re standing on the shoulders of giants, building upon the last decade of research in robotics and computer vision, and cramming all that tech into a device that’s not much larger than many of today’s smartphones. These prototypes include advanced sensors (many of which we already have in our phones and tablets) and stereoscopic cameras.
When all these sensors are combined with stereoscopic depth-finding, images can be captured which map the space in which the device resides. Again, this sounds terribly geeky, but it’s amazing.
Today, Google Maps lets us take a virtual drive down the street, allowing us to stop and look around a 360-degree sphere. Apply the same concept to phones and you have Google’s PhotoSphere technology. As interesting as that is, it’s still a mosaic painted on the inside of an otherwise “flat” sphere — the image is a picture without depth.
Project Tango aims to add immersion to that sphere. Objects in the image will have presence. They’ll have mass. They’ll have positioning relative to the objects around them — around you.
With PhotoSpheres, you’re standing inside a virtual bubble. Everything looks fine, but you can’t move from that central location. Other than the ability to zoom in and zoom out, your vantage point is fixed to that one spot. Project Tango opens the possibility for you to move within that space and explore the “picture” from different perspectives as you “walk around”.
Google Maps does a fairly good job of showing the world around us, but it’s in flat images. Sure, Google’s making some progress at adding dimensionality to its imagery, but the technology only works for outdoor spaces. What of caves, canyons, office buildings, shopping malls, churches, museums, and other indoor spaces? Cameras on satellites and aircraft can’t reach inside those places.
Project Tango presents the opportunity to apply the same concept of outdoor mapping to those indoor spaces. Though many may see this as the same sort of crutch for those who can’t read a map and must rely on GPS to get from Point A to Point B, the potential is profound.
Imagine being able to tour the majestic cathedrals in Spain, or Temple Square in Utah via your smartphone, tablet, computer, or even big-screen TV. What about a paraplegic “hiking” the Angel’s Landing trail in Zion’s National Park? Consider the ability to make 3D-printed models of these places for teaching and learning. People who would otherwise never have those experiences in person can have the next best thing in virtual reality.
What if you’re actually there, in those places? Utilizing your location, the sensors in your phone, and the stereoscopic cameras in your phone or tablet, contextually aware information can be presented on the screen of your device, pinned exactly to whatever it is you’re looking at. Visiting a dinosaur quarry? Simply pull out your phone and point it at whatever is in front of you. Overlayed on the camera display are information bubbles describing how that particular bone was discovered and excavated. A tap on the screen could play a related video, or begin an audio tour for you. Move your device away from that spot and the information on-screen changes, and the audio from what you were looking at previously fades, just as it would if you had looked away from a person speaking.
The implications for persons who are blind or have any kind of visual impairment are nothing short of staggering. Imagine a person with a cane walking through a space, indoor or outdoor, being guided by a virtual assistant who not only knows the lay of the land (in the most literal sense), but can also watch for hazards and speak those in real-time.
They’re not just phones anymore
We’ve been saying this for quite some time: phones are becoming less about telephony with every passing day. These devices are becoming the literal embodiment of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Virtually every piece of information known to Man is available on a device that fits in our pockets. Every song ever composed, every book ever written, every movie ever filmed, they’re all right there at our fingertips.
I mirror the words of Google’s Johnny Lee:
“We hope you will take this journey with us. We believe it will be one worth traveling.”
What about you?
Our vision seems fairly grandiose and abstract. We’re curious about your thoughts. What do you think Project Tango could do to improve your smartphone or tablet experience? Head down to the comments and let us know what you think!