Update: Tango has been phased out to make way for ARCore, which is a much simpler way to inject augmented reality into Android devices.
Formerly called Project Tango, Tango is Google’s augmented reality (AR) based depth-sensing technology made for mobile devices, which also uses virtual reality (VR) and 3-D imagery. In other words, it is Google’s efforts to digitally create real-world environment and use it for a range of purposes. In Google’s words, the project equips mobile devices, through hardware (sensors) and software (applications), with the ability to traverse the physical world the way humans do. Google has made the APIs available for game developers; for integration into apps using Java; and for apps having their very own visualisation engine.
Led by Johnny Lee, a former member of the Microsoft Kinect team, Google started work on the project in 2014 and featured the technology during Google I/O 2016. Lenovo was the first company to come up with a Tango-enabled mobile device (smartphone), the Phab2 Pro. The phone is equipped with a couple of 16-megapixel cameras on its rear and also motion-tracking and depth sensors. Motorola started the Tango project, when the company was owned by Google. Motorola is now owned by Lenovo.
During the early days of the project, Google created a couple of prototype devices for Tango: Peanut phone and Yellowstone tablet. The devices were made for developer use and demos. The Phab2 Pro is a consumer-ready device. It’s believed Google doesn’t want Tango to remain a niche feature or come to an indefinite halt like most of its “tech” experiments. It wants the technology to become an integral part of a mobile device, similar to a compass and GPS.
Tango merges inputs from multiple sensors and processes them extremely quickly into usable data. The sensors are ably supported by an infrared camera, which collects the reflected light, and an infrared radar-like emitter. The technology also depends on gyroscopes, barometers and accelerometers.
A Tango-enabled mobile device (smartphone or tablet computer) can capture physical world dimensions and make their 3-D representations. The technology could be used for creating layers and imagery atop real indoor spaces. Developers can use the technology for creating VR experiences depending on real-world locations and objects. Tango is sophisticated and is unlike augmented reality apps that rest with placing imaginary images into pictures and videos. Tango is much more than just inserting the picture of an imaginary dinosaur into a real image.
Some real-world applications include:
- Being able to measure the size of any physical object through the device. For instance, you can measure a TV’s screen size by tapping on Tango-enabled device’s far diagonal corner, with the app taking care of the rest.
- Get an estimate of your home’s square footage sans taking actual measurements.
- Check how furniture will look like in your house before buying the product.
- Use Tango’s distance measurement and depth perception to create a photo app for simulating shallow field depth when capturing pictures.
These are just a few of the several things Tango can make possible. Its actual capabilities would depend on how well developers incorporate the technology into their existing apps or make apps based on Tango.
It is not clear how Google will make the technology a norm on regular smartphones, since the project is way ahead of its time. The platform needs additional sensors, which include sophisticated sensors such as an infrared projector, fisheye motion camera, and time-of-flight camera that would let Tango comprehend and map the 3D world. This requires significant support from phone manufacturers, which is not extremely likely.
Update: Tango on the Backburner
As aforementioned, Tango is no more the face of Google’s efforts to offer augmented reality on Android phones. The official support for Tango would stop by March 1, 2018. But it’s still very much in existence in the background and functions as an enabler of Google’s other AR efforts such as ARCore. In fact, Tango’s official tweet stated the AR journey would continue on ARCore.
What made Tango a commercial failure? Besides the aforementioned drawbacks that could have possibly hindered Tango’s rollout, the project had its fair share of bugs. But it was quite advanced already and asked a lot from the manufacturers to implement it in their devices. This is probably the reason why only two Tango smartphones saw the light of the day: Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro and ASUS’ ZenFone AR.