Google's Tango was playing hard to get -- but eventually, Lenovo captured its heart.
Today, you can finally order the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, the first phone with Google's 3D-sensing Tango camera technology at its core. It measures objects just by looking at them. It's the phone that could let you see how a new piece of furniture might actually fit in your home, or play advanced Pokemon Go-like augmented reality games in the real world.
And unlike some augmented reality products, the Phab 2 Pro isn't just a developer kit. It's an actual consumer-grade phone with upper midrange specs, a huge 6.4-inch screen and a big battery, all for a relatively competitive price ($499).
But Google now says the Phab 2 Pro is just the first of many Tango phones headed to market in 2017 -- so now may not be the best time to join in.
The rose still has thorns
I'm not evaluating the Phab 2 Pro as a phone. It could be an excellent Android phone with stellar battery life and a great camera, but I don't know for sure. (I can tell you right now that the glass-and-metal chassis feels high-quality, but we'll save the rest for our full review.)
Up close with Lenovo's Phab 2 Pro, the first Tango phoneSee all photos
But, as cool as it can be, the Tango technology itself still feels a little rough around the edges, too.
Last week, I spent a couple hours playing with the phone at Google's San Francisco offices, trying to shoot nonexistent zombies, create intricate contraptions out of falling virtual dominoes and figure out which pieces of furniture Google should buy to decorate its break room -- all simply by pointing the phone's cameras around while running a variety of purpose-built apps.
Some of the time, it worked great. I couldn't believe how life-like this coffee table looked through the window of the Phab 2 Pro, despite the fact that it doesn't actually exist:
And there's no question that this ramp (inside Google SF) is wheelchair-accessible:
But it didn't take a heck of a lot to confuse Tango's sensors, either. Reflective surfaces, like a soda can or even a shiny counter or floor, could sometimes throw off the virtual world's position. Sometimes instead of seeing a zombie, I'd just see a boring disc:
Sometimes, my Hot Wheels racetrack -- or portable educational model of the Solar System(!) -- wouldn't be quite where I left them.
And sometimes (no, more like all the time) it took a long while to load each Tango app before I could start using it.
The next GPS
If that was it (a single phone manufacturer and 35 initial apps) it'd be easy to write off Tango as an experiment, or perhaps even a token consumer launch before it kills off the project for good.
But Google Tango boss Johnny Lee suggests that the 3D-sensing technology is actually speeding up, in part thanks to Pokemon Go showing how successful an augmented reality app can be. Other manufacturers aren't waiting to see if Lenovo's phone sells well before it produces its own Tango phones, Lee confirms.
"Next year, it will be many, many phone manufacturers," says Nikhil Chandhok, Tango's Director of Product.
Lee, who also worked on the Microsoft Kinect, says we should think of Tango as a feature like GPS, not something that's technically necessary for a phone, but a feature that becomes hard to imagine living without. (GPS, too, had some growing pains when it first arrived in phones.)
And for what it's worth, a number of popular consumer brands agree with him, including Lowe's, Crayola and Mattel, each of which are among the first wave of app developers for the platform.
"It won't necessarily be Tango, but this capability to understand space is coming and I think the market will be very large," says Ariella Lehrer, CEO of Legacy Games (the developer of Crayola: Color Blaster).
Lowe's, the hardware store, will even sell the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro at "select" retail locations in early December, imagining customers will use them to measure their space as part of the home improvement process. Wayfair will offer a home furnishings app as well.
Wait and see
It means a lot that the first Tango device is also an Android phone. It means that theoretically, assuming it's a good phone, you could possibly afford to buy it and use it even if Tango isn't everything you dreamed.
But if Google's right that more Tango phones are coming -- in a variety of shapes, sizes and prices, says Lee -- it really seems like you might want to wait. There's not a lot of software right now, there are still some weird glitches and limitations, and there are more phones on the way.
The other day, I tried a little experiment of my own: I fired up my 8-year-old T-Mobile G1 (the first Android smartphone, and thus one of the first with turn-by-turn Google Maps navigation) to see how glitchy GPS used to be.
It took several full minutes to get my first GPS lock, the voice navigation didn't work without an additional download, and the actual map disappeared along the way, but the GPS got me to my destination all the same.
Maybe it's not so strange to think that today's Tango could be similarly ingrained in tomorrow's society.
If you're ready to dive in now, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro should be on sale at Lenovo.com today (with ship times of 4 to 5 weeks), at Lowes.com on November 2, and at some Lowe's retail stores on December 5. In the United States, it's compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile.