Augmented reality began on smartphones but technical limitations have prevented further development. Google's Tango (formerly Project Tango) aimed to change all that, and with Lenovo's help, they now have their first device.
Check out the features in this video from Lenovo:
Lenovo's $499 Phab2 Pro is a 6.4 inch, 1,440p smartphone that, as the name clearly indicates, has no shame about being called a phablet. It speeds along with an eight-core Snapdragon 652 processor, 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB of flash storage (with microSD expansion options), and a large 4,050 mAh battery that Lenovo claims can last up to 15 hours.
What sets the Phab2 apart from other giant smartphones is its depth sensor and wide angle camera that assist Google's Tango technology. Thanks to these hardware additions and Android's new abilities to use them, the Phab2 can map the environment around you, track objects, and easily insert 3D renderings into the space it sees. It creates a real-time, untethered augmented/mixed reality experience much like Microsoft's HoloLens, but in 2D and on your smartphone's screen.
The Phab2 won't be available until this September, but its announcement reveals a lot about what we can expect from our devices in the future. These new sensors and mapping technologies passively collect a lot of data about our environments and that raises a number of privacy concerns.
If all that data stays locked away in our phones, we don't have a problem, but companies can target ads more aggressively with data they discover, and hackers could obtain 3D maps of our homes if they gain access. As cool as Tango-enabled devices might be, we can't ignore the risks the technology poses.
Risks aside, Tango (and the Phab2 Pro) mark a major advancement in what phones can do to alter reality.
Augmented reality has long-defined the experiences we currently know on our phones, as they add a layer of data on top of what we see. This technology is really useful for say, Google's translation app or Yelp's Monocle.
Tango takes this a step further than we've ever seen before, creating a mixed reality, which merges the digital into our physical environments.
While a small screen won't feel as immersive as a 3D holographic headset like the HoloLens, adding this technology to smartphones has the potential to bring mixed reality experiences to far more people at a more reasonable cost. Furthermore, while Microsoft's HoloLens is completely untethered and can function as a standalone device, it still has a long way to grow in its overall resolution, viewing area, and processing power—not to mention its battery life is only about 20% of the Phab2 Pro's.
The HoloLens feels a lot more like the future nevertheless, but while we wait for mixed reality headsets to evolve over the next decade, we at least have Tango expanding our reality-experience options. Furthermore, additional platforms will allow developers to create more apps, games, and experiences that will likely find homes on platforms other than just Tango-enabled devices.
In some cases, smartphone-based mixed reality makes more sense than donning a headset. When you're just trying to see how a new piece of furniture might look, you want to change the color of your walls, or even alter your appearance, it just makes more sense for applications to be handheld.
Regardless of the hardware, the more our everyday gear embraces mixed reality the more prepared we'll be for the future devices when they finally come of age. Mixed reality holds a lot of potential for the future, and greater device compatibility can only expand the possibilities of what we can do.