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Lenovo’s Phab2 brings Project Tango to market

Lenovo’s Phab2 Pro promises to herald the dawn of things to come for the consumer IoT, bringing physical eyes to a new breed of smartphone that can be used in both consumer and business applications. Infrared depth-sensing and a wide-angle lens augment the standard phone camera, and show the potential for this technology to bring new capabilities to the IoT.

With a 6.4-inch QHD (1440p) screen, Lenovo is planning on selling the phone for $500 in August. Powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 SoC (not the MediaTek in the $199 Phab2 and $299 Phab2 Plus), the Pro model features a 16 megapixel camera with a special depth-sensing functions, which allows the smartphone to map the physical world.

The camera is a much more streamlined version of the developer kit that has been available in a tablet form factor for the past year or so – and one which fits easily inside the smartphone’s housing. Lenovo took to the stage showcasing the tech in a number of applications, which included VR gaming, a museum guide app, and a slightly strange dominoes-esque game.

But Tango as long been touted as a way to provide machines with an accurate physical understanding of the real physical world in which we humans live. The ability to do this using what is likely to become general purpose smartphone hardware, assuming the tech gains traction among other OEMs, there’s a significant chance that Tango becomes the eyes of the IoT, for many human-facing applications.

Lenovo was giving hands-on demos to those in attendance at launch, and reports of their effectiveness have been mixed. If we trust Lenovo to iron out the bugs before a wider launch, it looks like the initial Tango ecosystem is going to impress a lot of consumers. A dedicated app store of some 25 apps will be available at launch, and Lenovo expects 100 apps to be available by the end of 2017.

It’s a similar technology to Intel’s RealSense and the image recognition that augments connected car platforms, but one that can be carried around in a consumer’s pocket. If Amazon hadn’t completely aborted its FirePhone platform, there’s a chance the retail giant might have brought this kind of space-conceptual technology to market before Google.

One notable Tango app on display was the Lowe’s Vision app, which is able to measure the size of a room and recommend furniture and fittings from Lowe’s range to fit the space. This sort of function could be easily extended into smart home enabling applications, which allow a system to better understand the physical place it is being asked to monitor, hopefully in an easier way than having a consumer or business map out the doors, windows, and walls in an app.

But this sort of fractured, disparate usage doesn’t lend itself to being a natural augmentation for Google’s Maps, as was expected by many. For a time, it looked like Project Tango would be using some for of ultrasound or radio wave technology to map its surroundings, which would have opened up the potential to have a passive means of smartphones providing physical maps of their surroundings – which Google and Android could then go about monetizing.

Now, however, it seems all but certain that Tango will require an active end-user in order to function, and has moved from this potentially revolutionary location-enabling technology to one that is undoubtedly very cool, but not as world-changing as the speculation that accompanied the early-days of Tango leaks and coverage.

With even a 1% penetration of Android users using such a Tango technology, Google would have gained a very up-to-date map of the physical world that couldn’t be provided by its Maps platform. For marketers and advertising sales teams, such data would be hugely valuable, and for anyone wishing to know the heatmap nature of a particular area (mass transit providers, smart cities, marketers), a technology like Tango would have had huge promise.

So now that Tango is an active technology, it can’t provide those sorts of use cases. However, what it can provide is a means of mapping the real world and representing it inside a smartphone and its accompanying cloud application. With just this feature-set, we are still going to be able to use the VR and AR implementations that promise so much – but Google likely isn’t going to get as rich as many thought it might in the early days of the Project Tango rumor mill.

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