I'm walking around the conference room, aiming my Tango phone at the space between two chairs where Lenovo executives are sitting. A third empty chair, a plush leather one, sits on the carpet. I'm walking around it, seeing how it looks. But it isn't real: it's augmented, generated by an app on my phone screen. As I move around, it stays in place convincingly. I think to myself...I could use this to furniture-shop for my living room without even lifting a finger.
If you haven't used Google's Project Tango, or don't even know what it is, let me simplify: it's a depth-sensing 3D camera system that can scan the world around you and help place virtual objects in the real world. It might be the future of where smart cameras are headed. And it could be a sign of how phones might evolve further into world-scanning powerhouses.
Google's been developing Tango for years as a way to measure distances in 3D space, map out indoor areas, and create virtual and augmented reality, floating virtual objects into real space. Now, Lenovo's got the world's first ready-to-buy Tango phone, and it's calling it the Lenovo Phab2 Pro. And it'll be available this September.
Update, November 1: After an short additional delay, The Phab 2 Pro is now on sale.
What Tango can do
CNET's seen Tango in action many times, doing all sorts of funky things: simulating furniture shopping, navigating museums, diving in giant VR aquariums. Tango has been in a developer-kit tablet for a while, where it was used for lots of experimental ideas. Tango's chief skills are depth-sensing, location-mapping, and placing virtual objects into reality with a better sense of accuracy. On the tablet, most apps were used in landscape mode. On the Phab2 Pro, most Tango apps are still landscape-mode oriented, too.
The apps I got to try were varied. One placed virtual furniture in the room I was in, allowing me to experiment with what would fit in real, physical space. Lowe's is making one of the first potential Tango killer apps with Lowe's Vision, which measures living space and then can layer in additions, furniture and decor to model in the space. Think Microsoft HoloLens, but instead of floating in front of your face you're viewing things on your phone screen. The rear trio of Tango-enabled cameras have an infrared depth-sensing, a wide-angle lens, and can track motion.
There was another app where I was able to walk around the room I was in, while the Tango camera started generating a 3D photo-mapped model of where I was. This is Tango's most amazing feature: with a bunch of these, you could walk around and map out interior spaces in full 3D. Tango's also unique because it can not only measure, but learn about the shape of areas: where objects begin and end, and where walls and doorways are. At Google I/O, Google said it's aiming to use this tech to map out interior places with the accuracy of outdoor maps. Maybe it's to beef up Google Maps' worldwide database. As an everyday person, however, I'm not still not sure how this would help anyone.
That's the biggest challenge with Tango: it still feels like tech seeking a killer app or purpose. But it definitely has a bunch of clever tricks up its sleeve.
There are a few games, too. I tried running around and shooting at virtual alien-things that hopped around the room I was actually in -- the conference table, the chairs -- much like some augmented reality phone games have already allowed for years. On Tango, the position tracking is far more accurate. It still feels a little silly. More impressively, I laid virtual dominoes on the nearby table and watched them knock down one by one. I walked around my domino creation, and it mostly stayed put -- with a bit of drift that Lenovo says will be corrected by launch. I looked a 3D velociraptor model standing in the corner of the conference room.
Lenovo promises 22 Tango-ready apps for launch this year, and estimates up to 100 apps by the end of 2017. Those numbers may sound conservative. Tango still feels like a development project, in a lot of ways.
Smart cameras are the future (probably)
Tango isn't the only type of smart camera tech lurking around: Intel's 3D RealSense cameras have been around for years, and can also track depth. They're making their way into other devices including helmets. Microsoft's developed similar positional-tracking tech in the Kinect and in the HoloLens. Amazon tried something similar in spirit with the Fire Phone and its array of cameras. And Apple acquired Primesense, the company that created the Kinect, back in 2013.
There have been many attempts at similar tech. Will Tango get it right?
Smarter cameras equipped with more advanced computer vision processing and deep learning could be the magic equation. Face and object recognition, auto navigation, and advanced mixed-reality applications that fuse the virtual and real. If phones get upgraded, smarter cameras, they could be doorways into a new future.
The Tango phone is called the Lenovo Phab2 Pro
Lenovo's new Phab2 phone line comes in three models, all of them with massive 6.4-inch screens. The one with Google's new magic Tango cameras -- the Phab2 Pro -- costs more ($499 unlocked in the US, equivalent to £345 UK or AU$672), and has an extra camera array on the back, arranged down the middle. There's a wide-angle camera, plus infrared depth sensing and motion tracking.
The Phab2 Pro has a Quad HD-resolution display, 4GB of RAM, and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 processor that's specifically built for Tango. The phone's large size means it feels more like a tablet than a phone. But it's smaller than the previous developer-edition Tango tablet, and more affordable. Plus, it's a connected phone. For those reasons alone, it'll likely be the new Tango device of choice. Whether it becomes more depends on apps.
- 6.4-inch Quad HD (2560x1440) IPS display
- 4GB RAM
- 64GB storage
- microSD up to 128GB
- 4,050mAh battery with fast charging
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 processor
- Dual SIM slots (or 1 SIM, 1 microSD)
- Rear 16MP fast-focus camera with Tango depth sensor and motion tracking
- Front 8MP fixed-focus camera, F2.2 aperture
- Triple-array active noise cancellation
- Dolby Atmos + Dolby Audio Capture 5.1
- 0.57 lb (259g), 180 x 89 x 10.7mm
- Aluminum alloy construction with 2.5D curved glass
- LTE Bands 2/4/5/7/12/17/20/30 in North America, compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile