You, like me, were probably pretty pleased to see some of the cool tricks that the ASUS ZenFone AR was able to pull off at CES in Las Vegas earlier this month – putting virtual objects like dominos on your table to play or placing a virtual 3D model of your desired refrigerator in your kitchen to see how it might fit into that corner makes a lot of sense, beside being a great deal of fun.
Of course, everyone's already excited about what possibilities this new Tango generation of sensor packed devices might bring. The catch? So far, there's only one consumer device powered by Tango out there right now, which is the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, available in the US and a few other selected countries so far. The above mentioned ASUS ZenFone AR will only be available for purchase some time in Q2 of this year. So, are you ready to trade in your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy for a Lenovo or Asus Tango device?
Don't get me wrong, Google Tango is a fantastic AR technology platform. Its true power is the reliable, stable and accurate "3D tracking" experience it provides, which in more simple terms means that virtual objects can be glued onto the real world appearing as if they are part of the real world scene you are looking at. One reason, among many others, Google built Tango is because it figured that normal smartphones – out there by the billions – cannot offer a high-quality AR experience, as they are simply missing the required sensors to make it great. This, I think, is only half true.
A company by the name of Cimagine has been developing computer vision algorithms that allow you to use your iPhone or Android powered smartphone to place furniture from various manufacturers into your living room or any other place. You can try it out now and you do not need a Tango device. This power on your standard smartphone has not been left unnoticed as Cimagine has just been acquired by Snap for somewhere between $30-40 million as reported by TechCrunch. It remains to be seen what exactly Snap will do with it. In any case, it values this non-Tango AR technology tremendously.
Apple has also been on a shopping spree to collect the bits and technology pieces needed to ramp up its AR powers. It acquired motion-sensing company PrimeSense in 2013 and AR technology provider Metaio in 2015 and FlyByMedia in 2016. There's speculation that the iPhone 8 will include some AR capabilities and if technology opinion maker Robert Scoble is correct, it will be a transparent glass phone – now THAT would be cool. Whether or not this new iPhone will be using additional depth and multiple camera sensors, similar to what Google Tango has incorporated or whether Apple will continue the simple and consumer proven single camera approach (unlike the exceptional iPhone 7 with dual camera) is unclear at this point. We shall see in September.
But let's get back briefly to the question of why Google Tango has been created, which is to enable a mobile device to do what we as humans do countless times per day with highest precision: seeing in 3D. This means to understand the dimensions and depth properties of the physical environment around us in real time. This is something our brains have been doing intuitively since birth (well, almost since birth, a little less for the more clumsy of us). To borrow a term from the sports world, it's 'proprioception' – "The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself." Easy, for a human with two eyes – very challenging for a smartphone with only one camera.
Monocam SLAM, the technical term for the computer vision algorithm powering smartphones with one camera to see in 3D has not only been tackled by Cimagine, but also by PTC (Vuforia), Kudan and most recently by us at Wikitude – you can see it in this video here.
What there is no question about is this: mobile AR is here now. The question that remains: what will the killer AR use cases be and what kind of devices will we be using it with the most? Smartphones with extremely high penetration today – see Pokemon Go. Dedicated AR "Tango-like" devices, which will slowly increase market penetration this year. Or some kind of AR smartglasses such as ODG's new offering, or Magic Leap's "magic device" to be introduced later this year? The good news is: you can start figuring this out on your current smartphone now by searching for "AR" in the App Store and Google Play. Have fun, and build cool stuff – the world is already waiting for it.