Gilster: Google's Tango could produce next big smartphone innovation

Posted by Paul Gilster on March 2, 2014 

When technology develops as fast as it does today, the biggest problem can be just seeing what the possibilities are. I think that’s what Google’s new Tango project is all about. Although there is prototype hardware for this futuristic smartphone, the real idea is to pack a lot of new capabilities into a smartphone case and turn developers loose to see what software might be produced for it. What comes out of Tango could mark the smartphone’s next big innovation.

Tango grows out of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, and you can get an idea what Google is up to by taking a look at the man leading it. John Chung Lee was involved in virtual reality at Carnegie Mellon University and went on to work with Microsoft on its Kinect motion input controllers for Xbox gaming consoles and PCs. At Google, Lee is trying to build a phone that is aware of the space around it, a kind of 3-D smartphone that can not only sense location on a flat map but learn and interact with whatever space the user enters.

Visual maps

To make this happen, Google has developed partnerships with sixteen universities and research organizations to tap the latest work in computer vision and robotics. ATAP itself is headed by Regina Dugan, whose experience at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency gave her abundant experience with futuristic ideas. If you think your current smartphone is packed with high tech, consider that the Tango prototype is designed to map the environment around it by taking 250,000 3-D measurements every second. Throw in computer vision technologies along with compass and gyros and you can create multi-dimensional visual maps.

Lee talks about a phone that moves in the direction of ‘human-like understanding of space and motion,’ and while that’s still the stuff of a roboticist’s dreams, it won’t be forever. So let’s imagine what the futuristic Tango could do. If we can create software that draws on the phone’s understanding of space, we can get directions in a new way. My iPhone can show me where the office building I need to find for a meeting is located, but Tango’s 3-D mapping could lead me through the doors, up the escalator to the elevator, down the corridors and straight to the office. Try that with the flat-space oriented Google Maps.

Potential applications

I like the 3-D mapping idea tremendously because it should offer new alternatives for people with vision problems. Tango should be smart enough that the right software can map any room down to the level of the furniture and obstacles inside it, prompting the user with voice cues about things to avoid and routes to take. Whether in a room or on a city street, that’s a major help in avoiding accidents and providing greater self-reliance to the visually impaired.

Tie this technology in with Google Glass and you can see how it could help emergency responders by projecting detailed maps of building interiors into a heads-up display. Other applications suggest themselves in the areas of shopping and gaming, but the point is that Tango is a technology in search of productive applications. To figure out what those applications should be, Google has picked 200 developers to work with the prototype, expecting new apps for indoor and outdoor navigation and new ways of processing 3-D sensor data.

We’ll see what the developers come up with. One big concern has to be battery life for a phone that is so computationally intensive, but the current vision processor for Tango is from a company called Movidius, which offers extremely low-power chips. Smartphone tech is moving fast enough to make this 3-D phone feasible. The initial development work will tell us what kind of apps are possible and give us a sense for the market Tango will ultimately serve.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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