Street View and Maps have long been leaders in outdoor mapping and location-based solutions. For some time now Google has sought to enter new grow with innovative indoor navigation and location-aware applications. For some time it has been a big tease in the market with more than a few iterations of Tango (once known as Project Tango) technology, but these were just available to developers.
When Lenovo officially revealed the first Tango-enabled consumer device things changed with the Phab2 Pro smartphone. Google and Lenovo jointly announced they intend to collaborate on phone back at CES, but finally I have been able to try using one along with the apps that are thought to ship with.
The phone got it’s name “phab” for a reason. It’s big and it’s thin, with a nice-looking 6.4” QHD IPS-powered display with a total of four cameras. One camera is a front-facing 8MP, one is a traditional 16MP camera, and then there is a fisheye camera for better motion tracking and a depth camera with an emitter. For audio, it has Dolby ATMOS for output, and it also supports Dolby 5.1 Capture using a microphone array. It says this is a first among smartphones.
A new class of augmented reality apps
Apps include things like a “walk with dinosaurs” where you get to experience the American Museum of Natural History letting you scale, rotate, and place dinosaurs in your room – an introduction demo, it’s a neat augmented reality domino game, and an app that lets you measure distances in your environment.
All the apps were plenty of fun to use, but some of Tango’s rough edges were also revealed. For example, while I can place a dinosaur anywhere on the floor, it didn’t show behind objects that were closer – for example a railing. Likewise, the measurement app worked well for relatively contained objects like furniture that were nearby, but as I moved it around so that the distance could be measured from a nearby piece of furniture to random spots on the floor making it rather confusing. I think this is the result of the limitations of the emitter-based time-of-flight distance sensor.
Lenovo is partnering with Lowe’s home improvement company to offer an app that lets you visualize remodeling/refurnishing a room. This is comparable to existing applications from Ikea and other retailers, but it takes advantage of the Tango technology to scale the room and the furniture automatically.
It is clear that Lenovo is aiming the Phab2 Pro at consumers, but we are a bit cynical about how many regular folks will want to pack a phablet around to use these additional features. There is plenty of potential for AR-based gaming, like the domino game developed by Schell Games, so we can see that numerous families might look at one of these as an alternative to the traditional iPad to help keep their kids entertained. I can also see a lot of possibility for vertical applications in real estate, industry, and additional markets, just as Google Glass and various other existing AR devices have found their home there.