Head-mounted augmented reality devices such as Microsoft’s HoloLens and Meta’s Meta 2 show what high-dollar, cutting edge AR hardware can do, but the fact is few consumers will be buying these products anytime soon. I wrote about Lenovo’s Phab Pro 2, the first production Android phone with Google’s Tango handheld AR technology when the company announced it in June 2016. In November Lenovo started shipping the product, and since then I’ve been testing it. Tango as a technology has a long way to go, but using this phone, it’s hard not to recognize the possibilities it represents. Phone-based VR such as Google’s Daydream is interesting. Phone-based AR, done right, could change how we interact with devices, information, our surroundings, and even each other.
Big Battery: Big Phone
I won’t dive into all the speeds and feeds of the Phab Pro 2 except to note that it has a massive 6.4-inch screen, a 4050 mAH battery, and a custom Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 chip. Tango likely made the processor and big battery necessities; I suspect the large screen was a pocket-busting side effect of the battery requirements. The result is a phone so large it makes Apple’s sizeable iPhone 7 look positively tiny. As a phone, it is simply too big. But as a Tango test machine, the large screen works out well, as it gives the apps a larger canvas with which to work. Which points to what will be an ongoing issue with handheld AR: You need a big screen to drive a reasonable experience, but too big and nobody will want to carry it. Foldable screens, anyone?
The Phab Pro 2 has a Tango icon front and center that launches the section of the Google Play store devoted to Tango apps. At present, there aren’t very many apps to choose from, and most are relatively rudimentary. And some are just plain goofy. Obviously, it’s hard to incentivize app developers to create Tango-based apps when there’s just one hardware product shipping. In the meantime, there are a few apps worth discussing.
Google’s own Experience Tango app creates a fantasy world filled with unique creatures and plants that spring into existence as you walk around the actual space you are in. It’s a neat demonstration of the technology, but it’s the type of app you load exactly one time.
Dinosaurs Among Us is more interesting in that it lets you drop moving digital representations of extinct creatures into your physical reality. So, for example, I placed a Caudipteryx into my living room, standing on the rug. Then I took a video of my son walking around the critter. Cool.
The Lowe’s Vision app lets you do practical chores such as measuring an object or a space. It proved fairly accurate in my tests. The app also lets you drop Lowes products such as chairs and tables into your living room to see how they look and if they fit (Wayfair has a similar app). You can even take a picture of the different products in your house and then solicit feedback from friends and family.
Finally, I spent a fair amount of time playing with the BikeConfig AR app creating custom-built bicycles I can’t afford to buy in the real word. Unlike a static image, it is possible to walk around and inspect these bikes from every angle.
Unfortunately, extended periods of AR usage clearly impact the phone, which gets warm to the touch under heavy load. And pretty much without fail each time I’d be enjoying an experience on the phone, the Tango app I was using would hang, or throw up an error message noting the Tango Core crashed. Six months ago Tango was a Google project; today’s it part of a shipping product, but in real-world use, it’s still far from ready for prime time.
Future Potential is Clear
While my day-to-day experience using Tango was mixed at best, and today’s apps are primarily gimmicks or one-trick ponies, the technology’s potential is clear. Handheld AR will make lots of interesting things possible. From indoor navigation to object recognition; knowledge transfer to collaboration; and shopping to entertainment. The downside, of course, is that if you think everyone is already doing too much walking around staring at their smartphones, this will only make things worse.
This week at CES ASUS announced its ZenFone AR Tango phone (it also supports Daydream VR). I expect to see more vendors announce similarly enabled phones at Mobile World Congress later this year. And, of course, there’s plenty of speculation that Apple may enter the handheld AR space with its next iPhone launch. At some point handheld AR will move from an interesting technology to one that people will expect their phone to have, the biggest question now is exactly when it makes that leap.