Google to launch developer conferences for Project Ara modular smartphone program

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) will hold the first of three developer conferences for its Project Ara modular smartphone project in April and the company aims to have a working, commercial device in the market in 2015.

The first Ara Developers' Conference will be April 15-16, and it will be held online, with a live webstream and interactive Q&A capability. A limited number of participants will be able to attend in person at the Computer History Museum near Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

The first of three developer conferences will focus on the alpha release of the Ara Module Developers' Kit (MDK), according to a Google+ posting from Paul Eremenko, the head of Project Ara within Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group. The MDK, which Google expects to release online in early April, is a free and open platform specification and reference implementation that has all of the components a developer would need to create an Ara module.

The April conference will have a detailed walk-through of existing and planned features of the Ara platform, a briefing and community feedback sessions on the alpha MDK and an announcement of a series of prize challenges for module developers. Only true developers will likely be welcomed on site at the conference, but Eremenko wrote that Google is inviting "developers of all shapes and sizes: from major OEMs to innovative component suppliers to startups and new entrants into the mobile space."

Via Project Ara, Google effectively wants to give end users the ability to retrofit and continually customize the hardware of their smartphones. The core of Ara is an endoskeleton (endo) and modules. The endo is the structural frame that holds all the modules in place. A module can be anything from a new chipset, display, keyboard or sensor. The project is similar in many ways to Phonebloks, a venture unveiled in September, and Google is working with Dave Hakkens, the creator of Phonebloks.

Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group, or ATAP, is led by Regina Dugan, a former DARPA chief, and will not be part of Google's $2.91 billion deal to sell Motorola to Lenovo.

"The question was basically, could we do for hardware what Android and other platforms have done for software?" Eremenko, who also worked at DARPA, told TIME. "Which means lower the barrier to entry to such a degree that you could have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of developers as opposed to just five or six big [manufacturers] that could participate in the hardware space."

Eremenko told TIME that ATAP is finishing up work on a functioning prototype, which will be ready within the next few weeks, and will have a version ready for commercial release in the first quarter of 2015.

Meanwhile, work is already under way on another ATAP project, dubbed Project Tango. Google unveiled the project last week, and it's designed to use a prototype phone and the ingenuity of developers to use 3D scanning technology to build maps and models of physical locations. Behind Tango is a vision processor called the Myriad 1, manufactured by chip startup Movidius.

As The Verge notes, Movidius CEO Remi El-Ouazzane said the company has been working on the technology behind Project Tango for the past seven years. The prototype has a 4-megapixel camera paired with a unique combination RGB and IR sensor and a lower-resolution image tracking camera. All of those things combined give the phone's camera the ability to take in both spatial awareness and have a perception of depth. What the phone captures is then fed into the Myriad 1, which processes the data and sends it to apps through a set of APIs.

El-Ouazzane said depth-tracking could be used not just for 3D mapping and building planning but to aid the visually impaired to give them warnings and alerts to obstacles in their paths. He told The Verge he could not say how much the Project Tango prototype costs to make or when it might be commercialized, but said that it won't be too long before everyone has computer-vision-equipped smartphones.

Google has said it has 200 prototype developer kits and has set aside some of the devices for projects in the areas of indoor navigation/mapping, single/multiplayer games that use physical space, and new algorithms for processing sensor data. Google is also inviting developers to send in other ideas for how Tango could be used, and it expects to distribute all of its available units by March 14.

For more:
- see this Google+ post
- see this TIME article
- see this The Verge article
- see this separate The Verge article

Related Articles:
Google unveils Project Tango for smartphones, aims to produce 3D maps of physical world
Google's Motorola signs hardware partner 3D Systems for Project Ara modular phone program
I love Motorola's Project Ara for modular phones - I just don't think it will work
Google's Motorola unveils Project Ara, focuses on customizing smartphone hardware

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