SAN FRANCISCO — Suppose your smartphone is clever enough to grasp your physical surroundings – the room’s size, the location of doors and windows and the presence of other people. What could it do with that info?
We’re about to get our first look. Today, Lenovo will give consumers their first chance to buy a phone featuring Google’s 3-year-old Project Tango, an attempt to imbue machines with a better understanding about what’s around them.
Location tracking through GPS and cell towers tells apps where you are, but not much more. Tango uses software and sensors to track motions and size up the contours of rooms, empowering Lenovo’s new phone to map building interiors. That’s a crucial building block of a promising new frontier in “augmented reality” – the digital projection of lifelike images and data into a real-life environment.
If Tango fulfills its promise, furniture shoppers will be able to download digital models of couches, chairs and coffee tables to see how they would look in their actual living rooms. Kids studying the Mesozoic Era would be able to place a virtual Tyrannosaurus in their home or classroom – and even take selfies with one. The technology would even know when to display information about an artist or a scene depicted in a painting as you stroll through a museum.
Tango will be able to create internal maps of homes and offices on the fly. Google won’t need to build a mapping database ahead of time, as it does with Google Maps and Street View. Nonetheless, Tango could raise fresh concerns about privacy if controls aren’t stringent enough to prevent the on-the-fly maps from being shared with unauthorized apps or heisted by hackers.
At today’s Lenovo Tech World conference in San Francisco, the Chinese company is expected to show the device publicly for the first time and announce the its price and release date.
The key to the Tango’s success is likely to hinge on the breadth of compelling apps that people find useful in their everyday lives. If history is any guide, the early apps might be more demonstrative than practical.
Google already has released experimental Tango devices designed for computer programmers, spurring them to build about 100 apps that will work with Lenovo’s new phone. At a conference for developers last month, Google demonstrated an app for picturing furniture in actual living rooms and for taking selfies with digital dinosaurs.
Both large and small tech companies are betting that augmented reality will take off sooner than later. Microsoft has been selling a $3,000 prototype of its HoloLens augmented reality headset.
Lenovo’s Tango phone doesn’t use a headset. Instead, you look at your surroundings through the phone’s screen.
Google plans to bring Tango to other phones but is focusing on the Lenovo partnership this year, according to Johnny Lee, a Google executive who oversaw the team that developed the technology.
The efforts come as phone sales are slowing. People have been holding off on upgrades, partly because they haven’t gotten excited about the technological advances hitting the market.