Future Tech

Google Wants to Put a 3D Camera on Your Smartphone — Here’s Why

Skye Hudson 23-02-2015

Google’s quest to map the entire world 5 Tools To Take An Auto-Guided Google Street View Tour Google Maps is a great travel guide. Now you can even set Street View on auto-pilot and let it take you on the world's most scenic drives. Here are 5 tools that make this possible. Read More  doesn’t end with the outdoors. Now, Google wants to create maps of indoor spaces too — and that’s a powerful idea.


The product of the Google Advanced Technologies and Projects (ATAP) division, Project Tango is a way of 3D-mapping indoor spaces using specialized sensors mounted to a mobile device. Not everything born in ATAP makes it to the real world, but Project Tango has recently moved out of ATAP and is on its way to becoming a real product.

Let’s dive in and see what it’s all about.

What is Project Tango?

It’s a smartphone, and it’s a tablet, but the most critical element is a time-of-flight depth camera, which is capable of determining the depth of pixels in an image via a suite of clever algorithms and hardware.  Combining all of that into a smartphone or tablet form factor just makes it easier for people to carry around and interact with.  Using this, Google hopes to make smart devices smarter, giving them a human-like understanding of the physical world.

Google’s first prototype was a smartphone, as shown in the video above. Project Tango launched in an early form about a year ago Wassup With WhatsApp, Project Tango, Satya Speaks, Xbox Remote [Tech News Digest] Facebook buying WhatsApp, Google launches Project Tango, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks, Microsoft takes wraps off the Xbox One Media Remote, Steve Jobs getting postage stamp, and Wikipedia could become a real set of encyclopedias. Read More , and since then has been rapidly evolving. We listed it as one of the cool research projects that could change the world Cool Research Projects That Could Change the Future Will mega-corporations like Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel go on to give future generations the world we can only imagine now? These exciting research projects say that it is a promise they will keep. Read More back in November, and it is still firmly on that path.

The second iteration of Project Tango, shown above, was a $1,024 developer-only model that is currently out of stock. Google’s hoping to get developers involved to tap into all the possibilities for this technology, some of which we’ll look at in the next section.


For a glimpse into the work that has gone into Project Tango, check out the video below from ATAP.

A lot of resources are being poured into this project, and it will be exciting to see where it all goes.  At first glance, some of the technology in Tango may seem a little gimmicky, but the applications that developers have come up with so far are hugely exciting.

What Could It Be Used for?

As developers get ahold of the APIs for working with Project Tango, we’re sure to see an explosion of ideas for the platform. For now, here are a few that could come to fruition.

Search and Rescue



ATAP worked with many different companies and universities to produce Project Tango, but one university in particular is set on putting Tango to work in urban search and rescue missions. The University of Massachusetts Lowell Robotics Lab has big plans ahead [Broken URL Removed] for this application.

In many search and rescue scenarios, (picture a partially collapsed building) rescuers often  have no idea what sort of conditions are like ahead of them.  Project Tango, mounted on a small drone, would allow unstable spaces to be mapped before humans enter, identifying risks and obstacles and making the process faster and safer.

Navigation for the Visually Impaired


Google does a lot of great things More Than Search: 5 Things Google Has Done For The World Google has come a long way since starting up as a rinky-dink search engine that played second fiddle to what Yahoo! had to offer. If you’re the average person, you’re probably using Google in some... Read More for the world, and this use of Project Tango should probably be counted among those achievements. For those who are completely blind, visually impaired, or just have trouble getting around, Project Tango could view the environment around them, understand its geometry, and give them auditory hints about the locations of people, doors, and potential obstacles.


This could really change the lives of millions of the visually impaired all over the world. Hopefully this application of the technology is the first to reach consumers.

Immersive Technologies

Virtual reality Why Virtual Reality Technology Will Blow Your Mind in 5 Years The future of virtual reality includes head, eye and expression tracking, simulated touch, and much more. These amazing technologies will be available to you in 5 years or less. Read More ? Augmented reality Augmented Reality Games: Are They Worth The Money? Wouldn't it be easier to play a first person shooter if you were actually holding the gun? Or are such enhancements largely redundant in an age when mobile gaming can stand on its own. Read More ? Project Tango’s future could be deeply entwined with these two other technologies.

In the augmented reality vane, Target has already tricked out a few of their stores to sport a winter wonderland-style aesthetic when viewed through a Project Tango device. In the future, app developers could use Tango’s sensors and cameras to bring games into your environment. In the video below from Android Authority, you can see one game, Zombie Gunship Reality, already taking advantage of this.

Once Google can get more Tango devices into the hands of consumers, you can bet the game designers will follow. At that point, the kinds of games we’re likely to see are only limited by the creativity of the developers.


In the virtual reality sense, integration with the Oculus Rift Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 Review and Giveaway It’s been a year since the first Oculus Rift Development Kit was released, and it’s safe to say the world of gaming will never be the same again Read More , Samsung Gear VR Samsung and Oculus Announce "Gear VR" Mobile VR Platform Samsung executives and Oculus CTO John Carmack got up on stage to finally talk about a secretive project they've been toiling away at for the last year called "Gear VR." Read More , or Microsoft HoloLens Five Questions About Microsoft's "Project HoloLens" Microsoft's new Augmented Reality headset is very exciting -- but can they solve the fundamental problems of AR? Read More could allow for an even more immersive experience. Not to say that we ever expect Google to play nicely with Microsoft Microsoft Complains About Google, Spotify Switches To Mobile, & More [Tech News Digest] Microsoft falls out with Google, Spotify gets more mobile, Nintendo quits Brazil, Apple increases app prices, the Flappy Bird arcade cabinet, and there's no escaping the zombie apocalypse. Read More .  In particular, one of the major limitations to smartphone-based VR headsets like the Gear VR is the lack of support for positional tracking.  Creating a similar, Oculus-based headset for Project Tango would allow developers to use the depth camera data to track the position of your hands and head.

This could even lead to your body being used a controller.  Like the Microsoft Kinect, Project Tango can sense where bodies are in space, and deduce their pose. Train that Tango device on yourself, and your arms and legs could suddenly be in the game — a feature sadly lacking from current virtual reality games.  Alternately, with the ability to capture depth video, you could use Project Tango to create VR video VR Is About to Change Filmmaking Forever: Here's How Virtual reality is a new way of communicating with your viewer, and many people with a background in traditional filmmaking find the possibilities exciting. Read More that allows you to fluidly move your head around and observe the scene from many angles.

Trying out Furniture


Trying to figure out if that couch will fit in your living room? Unsure if that bookshelf would look good across from your shark tank?  With Project Tango, you don’t have to guess.  The depth camera is a virtual tape measure and laser level rolled into one and can measure distances, sizes, and even project an image of a product into a virtual simulation of your room. Walk around your house once with your Tango tablet, and you’ll have a virtual replica of your house on call whenever you need it.  Alternately, you could use the tablet to 3D scan people or objects, and then bring them into the virtual world, to be 3d-printed or used as a virtual prop.

Indoor Directions

Ever spend way too much time wandering around a Walmart or Costco looking for that one item? Project Tango, if adopted by major retailers, could be like Google Maps for the indoors.  Aisle411 and Walgreens have already integrated Project Tango with one Walgreens location, allowing customers with a Tango device to get directions to the appropriate aisle, as shown in the video above.

It doesn’t only have to be used for retail shopping. Finding your way around inside large office buildings is one possible benefit, and in any other areas where GPS is not available, local mapping like this could help people find their way around.

Helping Astronauts

That’s right; Project Tango devices could help astronauts accomplish a bunch of chores that would otherwise take them away from important tasks, by providing a new source of data for experimental autonomous robots called ‘spheres’ that fly around the ISS using cold-gas thrusters.  The spheres are still in the prototyping stage, but eventually they could take over a number of simple functions, and project Tango could help make that happen.

And this application isn’t far off. In fact, as shown in the video above, Google engineers have already taken the Tango into a Zero-G flight to test it out. The possible use cases for NASA and space travel in general are huge.

When Can I Get It?

Google has a lot of great services just on the horizon 4 Surprising Ways Google Will Soon Impact Your Life We won't be seeing interstellar spaceships and time travel machines any time soon, but here are a few Google projects that are going to change the way you live within the next few years. Read More , and Project Tango is just one of those. Back at Google I/O 2014, ATAP announced that they were working with LG on a consumer product to be released “next year”, which means that we should see a consumer-oriented product coming in 2015. The fact that Tango has graduated from ATAP is good evidence of that.

The first device is likely to be a tablet, but after that, we could see smartphones cropping up from different hardware manufacturers if it catches on — as with Android, Google will probably partner with any hardware manufacturers who are interested.  That said, in the world of razor-thin phones and thinner margins, it may take a while to convince manufacturers of the value of adding bulky, expensive sensors to their devices.

Beyond that general time-frame, we don’t know enough to be more specific. No pricing, specs, or specific release date have been announced yet. Though you can be sure we’ll all be waiting with bated breath.

What’s Your Favorite ATAP Project?

Project Tango isn’t the only idea to have come out of the special division within Google. There’s also Project Ara, the modular smartphone Samsung Buying BlackBerry Denials, Google Reveals Project Ara Prototype [Tech News Digest] Samsung wants BlackBerry, Google reveals Project Ara, Facebook restricts violence, Lightroom Mobile on Android, MySpace isn't dead, and why you should never rely on your smartphone alarm. Read More , as well as driverless cars that are taking us into the future Here's How We'll Get to a World Filled With Driverless Cars Driving is a tedious, dangerous, and demanding task. Could it one day be automated by Google's driverless car technology? Read More .

Be sure to let us know what your favorite ATAP project is in the comments below. And what do you think of Project Tango?  It it a gimmick, or a real evolution in the way we use technology?

Image Credits: smartphone Via Shutterstock, Say hello to Project Tango! and Project Tango – Journey | YouTube

Related topics: Android Tablet, Digital Camera, Google, Google Maps.

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  1. Miguel
    February 24, 2015 at 6:05 am

    No. Simply not. I won't allow, and neither accept the idea of some strange corporation breaking into my home. Because it Google but still it's just a G.

  2. jimmy c corn
    February 24, 2015 at 5:23 am

    Oh yeah...praise Google! Not only will they track you where ever you go, now they be able to see you.

  3. Marco
    February 23, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    You know, I was getting my hopes up for some sweet, sweet Google cardboard cheap VR action but very much like a thousand other projects Google delivers, it fails to accomplish and finish. Now, with Tango we're being promised that man-on-a-mission Google famous phrase - "Do no Evil". Google, looking from a few bias perspectives already does some 'evil', but in this commentators sole lonely voice, if this new project fails to deliver what it promises then Google is becoming not only a content thief but a charlatan, the guy at the pub who talks too much but doesn't show up with his awesome model girlfriend. She lives in Canada, you know, and is very much real. Google is embarking and embracing uncharted waters far away from the tropical undertones of technology it has grown to attract customers with. This is humanity progression stuff. Don't let us down, Google.