One of the surprising things to come out of the “Next Nexus” rumor mill is news that one of the proposed devices might come with a 3D camera and a laser sensor. Of course, there has been quite a bit of speculation about it, and this may all amount to nothing, but sometimes I like to play the “what-if?” game and see where it leads me. In this case, drilling down and looking at the little details as well as the big picture, there are a few things that I feel Google might have in mind.
When it comes to the Nexus 5, most of us would be satisfied if Google adopted the “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” mentality. A spec update to suit current demands for screen resolution, storage and battery life at a highly competitive price is all most people want- that would be good enough. But as Aristotle said, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” and when it comes to smartphone success stories, the whole experience is more than putting together great hardware. In today’s oversaturated smartphone market, simply adopting a middle of the road approach towards smartphone design may not really cut it. We have seen Google adopt a “fill in the gaps” approach when it comes to the Nexus portfolio before. The Nexus 6 is an example of a device that seems to exist merely to fill a gap, to get in on a trend rather than setting one, like filling in the blanks. It seemed a very reactionary move, an evolutionary move to suit the market trends. It was a smart move, a logical move, but not the sort of thing that would ignite people’s imaginations.
So is putting a 3D camera on a Nexus phone Google’s attempt at a giving the device a “killer feature”? If that’s the case it would have to come with a compelling user experience. To get what’s already been discussed out of the way, yes, it might be that we’re getting a 3D camera like the old HTC EVO 3D or the LG Optimus 3D, a weird throwback to the little while back in 2011 when manufacturers tried to make that a thing. The laser sensor and “3D imaging system” might be something like the eye tracking trickery of the Amazon Fire Phone, and the resemblance to Project Tango cannot be ignored. There are also the more practical concerns like impacts on battery life, and tech enthusiasts all over the world have made it clear that if it’s anything like what has been done before, they’re not interested.
Let’s have a look at the idea of a 3D camera and accompanying imaging system first. We’ve seen it before, and it wasn’t very good then. Alternatively it could be that the dual camera module setup is to provide HTC Duo Camera-like bokeh and depth of field effects. This brings with it a barrage of questions. Why would anyone want a 3D camera? Won’t it be too slow to take pictures? Don’t we all just share photos on social media which doesn’t have support for 3D imaging or video? Why would Google do something so seemingly gimmicky with a Nexus device?
Other things that have been discussed are the implications for Virtual Reality and 3D imaging and videography. Google has Project Cardboard and Google Jump — an entire ecosystem for Virtual Reality video capture. However, this doesn’t seem like the primary focus to me. This of course isn’t what most end users will be looking to buy a Nexus for either- they want the best Google experience at a competitive price, and in the case of the Nexus 5- a sub-Phablet screen size.
Maybe there’s more to it than meets the eye. Maybe, it’s an extension of what Google has been working on with Project Tango. The aim of Project Tango is to “give a mobile device the ability to navigate the physical world similar to how we do as humans” by utilizing motion tracking, depth sensing and area learning. This to me makes the most sense. Leveraging the capabilities of the cameras in tandem with the sensor to create a more immersive 3D experiences. The applications could be videogames, drawing, or even 3D modeling. In some ways, this complements augmented reality projects like Google Glass, and may be the part of Google’s answer to Microsoft’s HoloLens.
How would Google provide this 3D immersive experience to users? Would it be through a special app, or will this rumored Nexus device be the showcase for this new experience, with these features being a part of the core UI and navigation scheme? To me, the latter makes more sense. Have a look at Material Design. Apart from the more obvious move to a more flat UI, Material Design brings new animations, layering effects, and physics. The new design has elements that dynamically shrink and expand, adds more whitespace between elements, offers lots of animation, and provides a more 3D look emphasized by shadows and lighting effects. It’s designed to put the emphasis on the most important content of a screen. All these effects are simply visual right now- but they could be more than that, with a 3D display, and to go even further than that, a tactile screen that can dynamically raise and lower portions of the screen!
I believe that this could very well be the next step in the road to a more immersive user experience, in a more engaging and intuitive manner. All 3D display based experiences until now have been contrived and have had nothing more to add than a few aesthetic tricks. This new Nexus could be the device that brings us one step closer to that ultimate 3D user experience. But bringing a new experience means more than just sticking a 3D camera and imaging system to the back of a device. What remains to be seen is whether there will be applications and even OS level features that provide a supporting framework for the experience.
How does this idea fit in with the rest of the Android ecosystem? To look at this development from a bird’s eye perspective, the idea of a 3D experience may have an effect on other parts of the Google ecosystem, like Maps,Android Auto and Android TV. Augmenting the already detailed maps experience by bringing the maps and navigation experience into the third dimension could be one of the ways the 3D technology could improve the overall experience, but this might be a long way away in terms of technical feasibility and usability. A 3D interface for Android TV could be coupled with motion controllers for gesture based interactions- like the Microsoft Kinect or the Playstation Move controllers.
Of course I might be getting a bit ahead of myself as I play this what-if game. All of this is just an educated guess. This device may never see the light of day, this may simply be a prototype or a developer focused device rather than a consumer level product. But if this really does become a Nexus device, it would be important to think about what Google has in mind for the future, rather than rejecting the idea as a one-off gimmick outright.
The Nexus program has evolved from being a developer focused platform to being the centerpiece of the Google experience. Through the Nexus devices over the years Google has showed other manufacturers what the Android experience should feel like, and many of the design choices like the transition from hardware or capacitive buttons to software navigation buttons have been debuted and pushed by Nexus devices. In this regard, it does make sense to test out the feasibility of such a new vision towards user experience using the Nexus program- I just hope that this isn’t forced upon users and that there’s a way to opt out of any changes to the core experience, because if there’s anything that will hurt an Android enthusiast, it’s being made to feel like a guinea pig.