Lenovo’s Tango Phone: A Preview of AR for the Masses

on June 17, 2016
Reading Time: 3 minutes

At its recent TechWorld event in San Francisco, Lenovo announced three notable new smartphones products: The accessory-focused Moto Z and Z Force and the Google Tango-based PHAB2 Pro. The Moto-branded products are an attempt at creating differentiated Android flagship products via hot-swappable add-ons targeting today’s mainstream buyers. The 6.4-inch PHAB2 Pro is more interesting as it is Lenovo and Google’s first consumer-focused Tango product and represents a solid initial attempt at bringing handheld-based augmented reality to market.

Project Tango officially graduated beyond the project stage with the PHAB2 Pro announcement. The technology, initially available to developers in a tablet-based kit, uses multiple on-board cameras and sensors to enable three core technologies: motion tracking, depth perception, and area learning. In other words, the device knows where it is, what is around it, and when it moves within this space. In its early incarnations, many people referred to the technology as handheld virtual reality but that description always bothered me as VR, by definition, should be fully immersive and a handheld device—no matter how good—is never going to offer that. Lenovo wisely calls the PHAB2 Pro an AR device, a more accurate description and one that has substantially more potential.

I’ve written before that, while virtual reality will ramp up faster and have a more immediate impact on consumers, augmented reality represents a much bigger opportunity long term. One of the challenges around AR, however, is the high cost associated with creating the head-worn hardware necessary to drive cutting-edge products such as Microsoft’s HoloLens ($3,000 for the dev kit) or the Meta 2 ($949 for the upcoming dev kit, plus a tethered PC). The PHAB2 Pro is exciting because it represents a sort of mid-way point between here and there, offering access to AR technology for a more affordable price of $499 unlocked.

Obviously, the AR experience on a phone screen, held out in front of you, is fundamentally different from that of a head mounted display. But, for many companies and eventually consumers, AR running on a smartphone or tablet will be the first way they’ll be able to access affordable AR hardware. There are plenty of AR apps today, with more coming, that run on today’s standard smartphone hardware. But the Tango technology offers more capabilities than typical hardware. In addition to the unique combination of cameras and sensors in the PHAB2 Pro, the device also utilizes a customized Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 processor. The current demos of Tango apps running on the PHAB2 Pro are a little rough around the edges, but the potential is undeniable.

The home-improvement store Lowes clearly sees the possibilities. It had representatives at the event discussing how the device could be used to help customers not only measure spaces within their homes but visualize products available from the store in their homes using the Lowes Vision Tango app. The company is still looking at ways to make the devices available for customers to use on a temporary basis but it is also taking the unusual step of offering the device for sale, too.

Unfortunately at present, the PHAB2 Pro device is scheduled to launch later this year unlocked without carrier support here in the U.S. That doesn’t bode well for the device’s chances of being a breakout hit for Lenovo. But it was never going to sell in huge volumes. It’s important because it’s effectively taking what was previously a cool technology beyond the proof of concept stage and into something non-developer geeks and early adopters can buy and try. Lenovo and Google executives were cagey about how long Lenovo would have the one-and-only Tango-based phone on the market but I expect the company to leverage its experiences creating this product to bring additional, more mainstream products to market in the future.

It’s important to note, also, that Google’s ambitions around Tango aren’t merely to drive good consumer and commercial end-user AR experiences. What the company gains from putting this technology into more people’s hands is the ability to effectively crowdsource its efforts to map the insides of buildings. This is obviously highly valuable data and the next logical step for a company that has done extensive work in mapping the outside world.

More broadly, with Tango moving beyond project stage and a long list of hardware vendors planning products based on Google’s phone-based VR technology Daydream, we now have a clearer vision of the search giant’s plans around these two emerging technologies. With both, Google is shooting to enable not the best, highest-cost experience, but the good enough, more affordable one. Google loves scale and, with Daydream and Tango, the company is putting together the pieces necessary to create AR and VR platforms that its partners will make available to first millions and eventually billions of people.