It’s been two years since Google launched Project Tango, a technology which combines both hardware and software to give handsets and tablets a visual and spatial awareness which they didn’t have until now. The development phase is over, and the Lenovo PHAB 2 Pro is the first commercial handset to use the technology and we had an opportunity to take the early units for a short spin.
If you are not familiar with Google Tango, the project was launched in February 2014. Tango is based on the addition of a depth-sensing camera (similar in principle to what Kinect uses) and enough computing power to make sense of the extra information. The smart device should be able to understand the world in its immediate surrounding (250,000 data samples per second), and allow better augmented reality (AR), virtual reality and other apps based on this new information.
Tango has a set of specification that concern both Tango-compatible camera and computing power, possibly including dedicated chips such as the Movidius Myriad. Last year, Google started selling development Tango tablets, including a 4GB version. Earlier this year, Google and Lenovo have made an announcement which showed that both companies were working together on Tango.
There are two things to pay attention to with the release of the PHAB 2 Pro: the industrial design, and of course the potential new use cases.
The PHAB 2 Pro has the distinctive design language of the PHAB Series. It is a large-display phone, and the main difference to a regular handset in that category would be the slightly thicker chassis.
However, if you take into account the fact that a depth-camera has been added, and compare the PHAB 2 Pro with the development tablet, the difference is staggering. Lenovo has worked hard to make it happen and has now the de-facto standard to beat for future Tango integrations.
The chassis is otherwise relatively classic for this kind of phones. It has a full-metal body with stripes for the antenna at the top and bottom. It could be comparable to the Huawei Mate 8, just to cite an obvious one. The build quality is nice, and would be typical of the high-tier of the mid-range segment, but isn’t as nice as the high-end handsets such as the Galaxy S7 or HTC 10.
The potential of Google’s Tango is quite exciting. From a technological standpoint, the depth-sensing camera can generate a cloud of dots with three-dimensional coordinates as it scans what the camera faces. This allows developers to know quite a bit of information about the dimensions and positions of the surrounding relative to the handset.
For instance, this allows apps to know accurately how the phone moves when you are walking around. When only using the phone’s motion sensor, it is not possible to reach the same level of accuracy, especially if the usage is sustained for many minutes. The first apps to appear will use this capability to create better motion-based games.
Another one that I like is the camera app that lets the PHAB 2 measure the size of things. You take a photo, define distances that you would like to measure, and that’s it. It is accurate enough to get rough measurements, which is very nice for a quick furniture check for example.
Here is the on stage demo on how to measure furnitures with the Phabe 2 Pro and the Lowe’s app:
Guidigo is an application that shows how Tango can make a museum visit more interesting. We had an opportunity to test it during MWC 2016 (using a development tablet). The app uses the Tango technology to know where you are in the museum and provides guidance and additional explications, using an Augmented Reality interface. Many argue that the same concept could be used to guide people in other situations such as subways.
Here is the Project Tango demo using the Guidigo app at the Museum in Barcelona during MWC 2016, on the development kit (not the Phab 2 Pro) – augmented reality and indoor navigation:
That said, we also need to manage one’s expectations: Tango remains fairly new and we have yet to see what developers will come up with. The depth-sensing camera also has a finite distance at which it can gather data. It is also difficult to use in bright sunlight because the ambient lighting may overwhelm the infra-red signal.
Yet, Tango opens many new opportunities to developers, who may unlock “killer apps” that will entice users to opt for a slightly larger phone. If Tango is successful, more phone makers will race to design even slimmer models.
Check out the demo video of the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro shot at Lenovo Tech World on june 9th:
We have seen a lot the “Dinosaur demo” on the Tango platform showcased at many event, including Google I/O and Lenovo Tech World 2016 here it is at Google I/O and on stage at Lenovo Tech world:
While the Lenovo PHAB 2 isn’t a “high-end” handset, we think that it is positioned in the “premium” (mid-range, higher tier) market when it comes to hardware specifications.
It has a 6.4” (2560×1440, 454 PPI, 2.5D curved glass) display with a crisp resolution and algorithms that will adapt the image to the ambient lighting conditions. There’s a 16 Megapixel main camera that can record 4K videos, with a 8 Megapixel camera in the front. The main camera has a dual LED tone flash, but doesn’t feature an optical image stabilization technology. Finally, the main processor (SoC) is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 octa-core processor with 4GB of RAM.
There’s a large 4050 mAh battery, that can use a fast-charge technology (probably Qualcomm’s QuickCharge).
All in all, the hardware is powerful enough to make Tango work, but Lenovo has taken a cautious approach with this first handset. It also needs to balance the cost of the Tango technology and that of the general smartphone platform. At $499 the handset remains more affordable than the latest high-end phones that often retail around $700. As a first Tango device, this design is a huge step up from the development tablets.