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The first Google Tango phone launches with over 35 new apps

Google goes all in with its depth-sensing tech.
Nicole Lee, @nicole
11.01.16 in Mobile
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It's been years in the making but Tango, Google's depth-sensing technology, is ready to make its consumer debut. That's because today is when the first Tango phone, the Lenovo Phab2 Pro, goes on sale for $499. To accompany the Phab2 Pro's launch, Google is announcing more than 35 new Tango apps, all of which will be available in the Play Store today. I had a chance to play around with several of them, as well as speak with a few app developers and delve further into the future of Tango. And that includes Tango's relationship with Daydream, another well-known Google project.

Tango started life as a project within Google's Advanced Technologies and Projects division, or ATAP. The idea was to integrate an array of sensors and cameras into a mobile device so that it could figure out its position relative to its surroundings. We've already seen how Tango's 3D-mapping can be used to give directions in a museum, assist in home improvement projects and create cartoon worlds, but there are a few new use cases that caught my eye.

One of them is Crayola Color Blaster, which is described as a "zombie color-blasting game." Created by Legacy Games, the object here is to deal with incoming zombies by pelting them with paint. The zombies appear in an augmented-reality view on the display, so it looks as if they're in your actual living room. It's a very active game -- indeed, I found myself wandering around from one area of the room to the other just to get enough distance between me and the color-hungry undead. Even more so than Pokemon Go, this felt like a real augmented-reality game.

Arielle Lehrer, CEO of Legacy Games, said the game was conceived as just a coloring book in real space until they figured out there was so much more you could do with the technology. "We started to think about the magic window idea of Tango," said Andrew Duncan, the game's lead designer. "Anywhere you look, you change the environment. It really plays in any space."

Next, I played with Sockethead Games' Slingshot Island, which is pretty much as the name describes. Again using augmented reality, you place a virtual island in your physical space, be it your dining table or kitchen floor. From there, you'll use a slingshot to lob projectiles at it in order to solve puzzles, like knocking an egg off a structure. The interesting thing here is that your entire phone is the motion controller. That means as soon as you aim your target, you move the handset around to establish the shot -- as if your entire phone is the slingshot itself.

I also demoed a couple of titles that didn't use augmented reality. One was Hot Wheels Track Builder, in which I could race toy cars down tracks of my own creation. I picked pieces up and dropped them in place by moving the phone. It's once again using the idea of the phone as the controller. Another was Ghostly Mansion, where I collected clues in a virtual room by walking around a physical space. I could lean down to open a drawer or lift the phone up to grab a picture on the wall.

Of course, Tango has uses besides gaming. You can use an app called Measure to measure anything in your home, which is useful for home decorating. Apps like Wayfair View or iStaging are great for visualizing the placement of your furniture. There are educational applications too, like Solar Simulator for exploring the planets in the solar system.

A few years after its debut, Tango graduated to become its own project division in 2015. Now, it's organized under Daydream, Google's VR initiative. It doesn't take much imagination to see how useful depth-sensing and 3D-mapping would be in virtual reality. Indeed, the combination of the two technologies could perhaps lead to a standalone headset in the future.

"A lot of the work we're doing will enable inside-out tracking in VR," said Johnny Lee, Tango's director of engineering. "There's no product that we can talk about. But as Tango matures, as Daydream matures, there's an obvious crossroads that we're excited about."

But before integrating that tech into VR, Google thought it was important to buildTango into phones first.

"There are still a lot of phones being manufactured today," said Lee. "We feel like this form factor is one that we'll have with us for quite awhile." One of the reasons Randall Eike, CTO of Sockethead Games, was drawn to Tango is he felt that smartphones are a lot more accessible than VR headsets. "A VR headset isn't something you whip out of your pocket at a Starbucks," he said, whereas everyone has a smartphone. "There's a chance [Tango] will be more ubiquitous than VR."

Lee shares the sentiment. He thinks of Tango in the same way as GPS; we were able to get through our lives before it came along, but now we can't imagine our phones without it. The spatial reasoning and depth sensing allowed by Tango, he said, will be just as important. "I believe there is a whole new suite of experiences that are possible. The way we interact with our computers will change." Plus, he said, the rise of Pokemon Go shows that the public is a lot more accepting of augmented-reality apps than it used to be, which is good news for Tango.

Google is so bullish on Tango that it has already built up a pipeline of partners. In other words, look forward to more Tango-enabled phones next year. According to the company, these devices will be offered with a range of designs, form factors and price points. So if you're wary of the giant 6.4-inch screen on the Phab2 Pro, maybe wait a few months for a more compact alternative.

"This is not just a research product. It's a product in the market today," said Nikhil Chandhok, Tango's product director. "Should every phone have GPS? Yes. Should every phone have a camera? Yes. Should every phone have inside-out tracking? Yes," Chandhok continued. "Every phone should have it."

Raised in the tropics of Malaysia, Nicole arrived in the United States in search of love, happiness and ubiquitous broadband. That last one is still a dream, but two out of three isn't bad. Her love for words and technology reached a fever pitch in San Francisco, where she learned you could make a living writing about gadgets, video games and the internet. Truly, a dream come true. Other interests include baseball, coffee, cooking and chasing after her precocious little cat.

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