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Google announces Project Tango, a smartphone that can map the world around it

Google announces Project Tango, a smartphone that can map the world around it

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Google has built a prototype Android smartphone that can learn and map the world around it. The device comes from a new initiative called Project Tango, and it's ready to get the phone into developers' hands to see what the technology is capable of. Google says that the phone will learn the dimension of rooms and spaces just by being moved around inside of them — walking around your bedroom, for example, would help the phone learn the shape of your home. The hope is that by creating a robust map of the world, Google's phone could eventually give precise directions to any given point that needs to be reached.

"A human-scale understanding of space and motion"

It's an ambitious project, but that should be no surprise given who it's coming from: Tango comes out of the Advanced Technology and Projects group — one of the few pieces of Motorola that Google has opted to hang on to rather than sell. "The goal of Project Tango is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion," says Johnny Lee, leader of Project Tango. Google has 200 devices that it's preparing to give out to developers who want to build mapping tools, games, and new algorithms that take advantage of the phone's sensors, and it expects to send them all out by March 14th.

The Tango devices work by using a motion tracking camera and a depth sensor built into their backsides. While being moved around, the sensors will detect their orientation and what's in front of them, using that data to build out a 3D map of their surroundings. While the basic goal is to create detailed indoor maps, Google's distribution of developer devices speaks to the other possibilities it sees coming out of this type of data: it suggests that Tango could be used to create more realistic augmented reality games or to assist the visually impaired when they're navigating an unfamiliar area.

Google stresses that the technology is still in early stages, but it still sees it as on the way to reaching millions of people down the road. And now, the Advanced Technology and Projects group will have plenty of time and resources to make that happen. Alongside the announcement of Tango, Android chief Sundar Pichai extended a welcome to the team, suggesting that they've now fully fallen underneath Google. The group is also responsible for Project Ara, which hopes to build modular smartphones.

Project Tango appears to be a natural fit for Lee's leadership. Lee's name may be familiar from his work creating virtual reality tools out of a Wii remote while at Carnegie Mellon, and later for helping Microsoft develop the Kinect. He joined Google in 2011, and clearly he's still been working on equally ambitious motion-tracking projects since then. Google says it did not create Tango all on its own, however, but with assistance from various universities and research institutions as well. The project has been in the works at the Advanced Technologies group for the past year.