Google is known for its "shoot for the moon" ideas, with its top secret Google X division already producing driverless cars and Google Glass, a contact lens which will allow diabetics to continually monitor glucose levels as well as Project Loon, which aims to bring the internet to everyone using a network of balloons.
But it is another department at the search giant which has produced the latest future-gazing project, with the Advanced Technology and Project group (a legacy of the Motorola acquisition) announcing Project Tango, a mobile phone that wants to understand the world around it.
"The goal of Project Tango is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion," Johnny Lee, who leads Google's Project Tango team said.
The development team have been working on the project for the last 12 months, collaborating with universities, research labs and industry partners in nine countries around the globe to bring together research into robotics and computer vision from the last 10 years.
The result is Project Tango, a prototype smartphone that can map the world around you.
What Problem is Project Tango Trying to Solve?
The team developing Project Tango sees a major problem with the way smartphones and tablets work today:
"As we walk through our daily lives, we use visual cues to navigate and understand the world around us. We observe the size and shape of objects and rooms, and we learn their position and layout almost effortlessly over time. This awareness of space and motion is fundamental to the way we interact with our environment and each other. We are physical beings that live in a 3D world. Yet, our mobile devices assume that physical world ends at the boundaries of the screen."
Project Tango is looking to change that way of working by giving smartphones the same understanding of their environment as human's naturally have.
How does Project Tango Work
The team has creed a prototype smartphone with a 5in screen with customised hardware and software to allow it to track its movements in 3D, as well as map the world around it.
This is achieved by taking 250,000 3D measurements every single second. Data is captured by two cameras on the rear of the device, one a traditional 4 megapixel camera and the other a motion tracking camera.
These are helped by an integrated depth sensing chip with all the information being fed to two computer vision processors which combine that data into a single 3D model of the space around you.
How Do I Get One?
There will be just 200 Project Tango prototype devices available to software developers looking to build applications on the platform. The phone runs a version Android and will give standard Android applications access to position, orientation, and depth data.
You can apply for one here if you are interested but you'll have to be quick as Google says it will have all 200 distributed by 14 March.
It is unlikely the phone seen here will ever be released commercially, but an iteration of it almost certainly will, with this technology seeping its way into many mobile devices in the coming years.
What Could Project Tango be Used for?
This is the million dollar question.
While mapping the 3D world around you in almost real time sounds exciting, is it really of much value?
Of course the technology is only going to come to life when it is put in the hands of developers who can leverage the very powerful technology which the Project Tango team has created.
Here are some suggestions of how the technology could be used:
- Mapping your home: - The Project Tango team asks: "What if you could capture the dimensions of your home simply by walking around with your phone before you went furniture shopping?" Ikea already has an augmented reality app which allows you project furniture from its catalogue into your home but Project Tango technology would bring that to a whole new level.
- Indoor mapping: As shopping centres seem to get bigger and bigger, getting lost in them is an very larger worry, and this is where Project Tango could come in, allowing you to download detailed indoor maps in the same way as you do now with regular maps. There are already some indoor mapping solutions out there, but as with mapping your home, this technology will add a much finer level of detail.
- Gaming: Imagine mapping your living room, transferring it to a smartphone game, and suddenly seeing your living room transformed into a far-off world filled with orcs and trolls. Imagine playing hide and seek in your home with your favourite game character? Or using your home as a battleground?
- Help for the visually impaired: Creating detailed indoor maps would allow for much better voice navigation for the visually impaired, especially in unfamiliar surroundings.
- Find the bread and milk: Along with shopping centres getting ever bigger, supermarkets now seem to fill entire postcodes, and finding exactly what you want among the endless aisles is becoming a Sisyphean task. Project Tango could solve that problem, giving you pinpoint directions to that loaf of multiigrain you've been searching for.
The possibilities, as they say, seem endless.