Google unveils Project Tango for smartphones, aims to produce 3D maps of physical world

First it announced a project to build a modular smartphone, now it's launching a project to visually map the world with smartphones. Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Advanced Technology and Projects group unveiled Project Tango, with the aim of using a prototype phone and the ingenuity of developers to use 3D scanning technology to build maps and models of physical locations.

According to Google, the possibilities of such technology are endless: For example, users could capture the dimensions of their home simply by walking around with their phone before they go furniture shopping; or a visually-impaired person could get step-by-step navigation in unfamiliar indoor places. Tango also could support augmented reality apps, in which digital objects are overlaid on physical landscapes for games, information or advertising.

Source: Google

The phone behind Tango is a 5-inch device that runs Android and includes development APIs to provide position, orientation, and depth data to standard Android applications written in Java, C/C++, as well as the Unity Game Engine. Google noted that these early prototypes, algorithms, and APIs are still in active development and the prototype devices are not a final shipping product.

Google 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 expects to distribute all of its available units by March 14.

"The goal of Project Tango is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion," Johnny Lee, leader of the project, wrote on a Google page. "Over the past year, our team has been working with universities, research labs, and industrial partners spanning nine countries around the world to harvest research from the last decade of work in robotics and computer vision, concentrating that technology into a unique mobile phone. Now, we're ready to put early prototypes into the hands of developers that can imagine the possibilities and help bring those ideas into reality."

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

Behind Tango is a vision processor called the Myriad 1, manufactured by chip startup Movidius. As TechCrunch notes, it allows a phone to use 3D sensors at very low power levels. Most 3D-sensing platforms, like the PrimeSense chip inside Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) original Kinect, usually draw more than 1 watt. The Myriad 1, in contrast, operates in the range of a couple hundred milliwats, meaning much less power consumption, which makes putting the chip in a phone more feasible. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) confirmed in November that it bought PrimeSense for a reported sum of $350 million to $360 million.

This isn't the first bold research project Google has launched. Last October ATAP unveiled Project Ara, which is an open-source program designed to bring a modular smartphone design to the masses--in effect giving end users the ability to retrofit and continually customize the hardware of their smartphones.

For more:
- see this Google page
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this TechCrunch article
- see this separate TechCrunch article
- see this The Verge article

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