Mobile

​Google's selfie stick AR is a great idea

Google Expeditions nails augmented reality in classrooms, no headset required; but you need a Tango phone to use it.

There's something amazing about holding a selfie stick and trying augmented reality. I didn't know this until I tried Google Expeditions and its new AR-based tech at Google I/O. Unfortunately, I don't know if I'll ever have an everyday phone that can use it.

Augmented reality can work with standard phone cameras, but Google's Tango technology ups the ante with 3D depth sensing. The difference it makes is instantly clear, especially when walking around a room and looking at something like a virtual solar system.

I put on a headset and joined the simulated classroom demo with a few other people, all of us holding selfie sticks. The Google representative, acting as teacher, told us about weather patterns as we walked around a giant model of the Earth and looked for hurricanes.

A model of the sun included a cutaway of the sun's interior, and as I walked around it I moved my phone closer in for a deeper look. An asteroid belt that spanned across the room stayed in place realistically, and held position as I kept moving.

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Standing in the middle of an asteroid field, as photographer James Martin views through another Tango-on-selfie-stick.

James Martin/CNET

The effect of Tango on a phone is basically a bit like Microsoft's Hololens but without the 3D: the positional tracking is so effective that the objects seem real, but more so than similar phone AR apps I've tried (and better than Microsoft's demo of its similar-in-concept View Mixed Reality, which uses regular RGB cameras on Windows computers and tablets).

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The problem, though, is it's only designed to work with Tango phones. And who has those? The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro and upcoming Asus Zenphone AR are the only two Tango-equipped devices in existence, and it's not clear if more are on their way. For education, which generally aims at affordable hardware, that's an issue. Google has only suggested so far that interested classrooms could contact Google to arrange a visit to set up AR Expeditions, but would that just be a demo versus a chance to keep the hardware?

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Holding phone up to see the sun: The cool part is how well Tango tracks moving in and out and around to check out details.

James Martin/CNET

Google Cardboard Expeditions was VR for all: it used cheap folding pieces of cardboard and worked with any phone, a democratic and easy way to explore VR in classrooms. AR Expeditions is the opposite end of the spectrum: specialized hardware for special experiences. I'm not sure if Expeditions will eventually work with non-Tango phones, but Google's on-site reps said right now it won't. That's disappointing, because it's the most impressive use of augmented reality I've seen on a phone.

I hope Google figures out a way to share this type of AR system with more phones soon.