A slew of cool new smartphones are expected to debut at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. But Google has already unveiled what is almost certainly the most interesting phone of the year.
Part of what Google is calling Project Tango, the phone has special sensors and chips that enable it to map indoor spaces.
The Project Tango phone runs Google's Android, and comes with a developer kit for the creation of apps that use the sensors. Google this week invited developers to submit proposals for what they might do with Project Tango, and in March the company will handpick just 200 developers to pursue their projects.
The initiative is comparable to Google's Glass Explorer program, which started out with "tryouts." First, people from a variety of creative fields were asked to post on social media what they would do with Glass, then "winners" were selected and invited to pay $1,500 per headset for the privilege of participation. Google also offered attendees of its 2012 Google I/O developers conference the opportunity to sign up for Google Glass.
The Project Tango contest is smaller and focused on developers. But the aim is to leverage the creativity of some developers to define what might be possible with the Tango system.
Project Tango is actually a collaboration between "universities, research labs, and industrial partners spanning nine countries around the world," but headed by Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. The group used to be part of Motorola, and Google is hanging on to ATAP as it sells the Motorola handset business to China's Lenovo. The group's chief, Regina Dugan, used to work as a DARPA director.
How Project Tango works
Like all good smartphones, the Project Tango phones have built-in gyroscopes and compasses, so the phone knows which direction it's pointing in and how its orientation is changed when you move it around.
In addition, Tango phones have sensors that have been compared to those in Microsoft's Kinect gaming product. In fact, the project is headed by a former Kinect team leader. On the back, the phone has a four-megapixel camera, a depth sensor and a dedicated motion-tracking camera. The sensors can tell where the floor and ceiling are, where the walls and doors are, and where objects are located inside a room.
This information is combined with the phone's orientation sensor data to enable the phone to not only create a 3D map of an indoor space, but also pinpoint its location within that space.
One of the astonishing feats of Tango, according to Google, is that it can take "a quarter million 3D measurements every single second," according to a video posted on the Google Tango site.
The phone uses something called the Myriad 1 vision processor platform from Silicon Valley-based Movidius. The chip is a kind of co-processor for processing vision data that used to cost a fortune and consume massive battery power -- far too powerful for a mobile device. But a new generation makes it possible to build the Myriad 1 into a phone.
This map can be saved, shared or enhanced for various purposes.
What Tango makes possible
Here's a look at the types of advances that could be possible with Tango technology:
Augmented reality with more reality. If you map the inside of your house, you could shop for furniture and see what it would look like and how well it might fit in your rooms. By looking through your phone camera lens as if you were going to take a picture, you could drop couches, tables and other objects into an image of the interior of your home.
Vision for the blind. A Tango-equipped phone could "see" obstacles, doors and other things in a room, guiding a vision-impaired user through even a cluttered space.
Real-world mobile video games. Games could be played out in 3D spaces, with on-screen objects bouncing off real walls and flying through real windows.
Indoor "StreetView"-type mapping. Users could automatically map indoor spaces, and those maps could be uploaded to Google Maps or similar sites.
Easy measurement of indoor spaces. Tango has highly accurate depth perception. You could walk into a room, wave your phone around, then walk out with accurate measurements of the floors, walls, windows, doors and other features.
The most exciting part is that Google's (eventually) open, app-based approach will surely result in uses for this technology we can't even imagine.
It also clarifies Google's new strategy in the wake of its stated intention to sell Motorola to Lenovo: The company is getting out of the phone business -- and back into the phone technology business.
And that's a great place for Google to be.