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The first Google Tango phone delivers true augmented reality gaming

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If it weren’t for Pokémon Go, augmented reality might have stayed another forlorn futurist technology the public paid little attention to. Instead, the AR mobile game from developer Niantic Labs, a former Google subsidiary, catapulted the technology to hundreds of millions of smartphone owners around the world. Now a few months after the game’s launch, the first fully capable AR smartphone has started shipping. It’s Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro, and under the hood it contains the hardware and software neccesary to use Google’s Tango AR technology.

Pokémon Go didn’t accelerate Tango’s consumer timeline, which has been in place since the team began discussions with Lenovo last year. “Actually I think Pokémon Go took everyone by surprise, including Niantic,” Tango chief Johnny Lee, who spoke to members of the press at a roundtable event last week, says with a laugh. “Pokemon Go certainly made the conversation a lot easier with partners.”

“POKEMON GO CERTAINLY MADE THE CONVERSATION A LOT EASIER WITH PARTNERS.”

Jokes aside, Lee thinks the game proved the strength of AR, despite only using a rudimentary version of the tech. (Pokémon Go didn’t map your surroundings. It just haphazardly plunked down a virtual creature square in the middle of the screen.) Niantic’s creation showed people how powerful an experience can be when you plant software in the real world and let people interact with one another. “It’s the idea that you can use physical space in a shared context,” Lee adds. “The location-tracking capabilities of Tango can be the same vehicle for shared context between people.”

With the Phab 2 Pro, which is now selling for $499, Lenovo and Google are trying to prove that AR can and should become an integral component of modern smartphones. Lee thinks of Tango’s technology much like GPS, which transformed the utility of mobile phones and, years later, helped give birth to services like Uber. If AR is equally transformative in letting our devices understand physical spaces and “see” the world, it could help reshape entire industries, from gaming to retail to real estate.

We’re a ways away from that point, stuck between the extremes of Microsoft’s $3,000 prototype HoloLens headset and Niantic’s free-to-play Pokémon Go. The Tango team wants to create a middle ground for both hardware and software, and it thinks the Phab 2 Pro is the place to start.

To its credit, Lee’s division has progressed over the last two years from developer kit tablets to oversized retail smartphones. But the applications for AR are still quite limited. Many of them revolve around mobile gaming, using the Phab 2 Pro’s extra sensors and camera capabilities to turn living rooms into virtual play spaces. Down the line, Google wants to put Tango technology into many more phones and to expand how we think of AR. By next year, Lee says there will be more devices — and not just Lenovo’s — containing the necessary hardware to 3D map our surroundings.

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Until then, we’re stuck with the Phab 2 Pro. It’s not a bad phone by any means. It’s just a very niche device that’s impractical for a vast majority of smartphone owners. At $500, it’s cheaper than an iPhone or Google’s Pixel. Yet with a 6.4-inch display, the Phab 2 Pro can hardly be held with one hand. It barely fits in even large-sized pant pockets. No amount of nifty AR tech will sell people a phone that’s cumbersome to use for even the most basic of tasks.

That might be okay. Google and Lenovo both understand that the Phab 2 Pro will act as more of a proof of concept than a device designed to sell millions of units. In that context, the phone excels. Its large display and powerful camera allows you to view huge swaths of a room with virtual objects overlaid over the scenery. Many of the early Tango apps also make use of gesture control and other real-world movements to avoid forcing users to place their fingers on the touchscreen. This way, the scene can play out on the screen without any interference.

I tried a number of apps, all of which go live today on the Google Play Store, that were designed specifically for Lenovo’s Tango-equipped phone. (Some were created as part of Google’s Tango App Incubator program.) There’s a Hot Wheels game made by Mattel that creates a virtual test track to send race cars down. Another game, Slingshot Island from developer Sockethead Games, plants a floating landmass in the middle of a room. You’re tasked with toppling structures on the island’s surface using a gyroscope-powered slingshot mechanic, much like Angry Birds.

There’s also Towers for Tango, a business simulation game that places an small city on the table in front of you and lets you employ workers, build additions to apartment complexes, and grow the local economy. The games are neat, and also a little gimmicky, but the technology is certainly there. It’s remarkable to see entire 3D worlds play out in the camera viewfinder, and many of the Tango games force you to get up and move around as much as possible. It’s clear AR succeeds at getting users to stand up and get mobile, and I found myself walking in circles to inspect other parts of a virtual scene and even crouching down to try and get eye level with some objects and architecture.

Of the 35 or so Tango apps now available, a small handful have practical business purposes. There are a few apps, including one from Autodesk and another from Lowe’s, that let you place virtual furniture and appliances in your home to help visualize a purchase without having to pull out a tape measure. These applications, while boring at first glance, show the potential of AR to move beyond gaming and into industries where 3D mapping can truly transform how companies do business. Imagine being able to know exactly how an art print or new couch looks in your apartment, and not just by the measurement numbers, but with a virtual representation of the finished scene.

Until there’s more devices out there with Tango tech — and thats not happening until next year, at least — this all feels very much like an experimental test phase for AR. But developers don’t seem too discouraged. That’s both because Pokémon Go proved there’s an appetite for these type of mobile experiences, and Google is convinced it’s only a matter of time before every phone makes the jump to 3D mapping.

“This is something that is not going to go away,” says Legacy Games CEO Ariella Lehrer, whose company is making a kid-friendly zombie game called Crayola Color Blaster, – THEVEGE. “This ability to understand space is coming, and I think the market is going to be very large.”