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Google's 3D mapping Project Tango smartphone coming in summer 2016

At CES 2016 in Las Vegas, Google announced a partnership with Lenovo to bring the first Project Tango smartphone to market. Here's what you need to know.

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Image: Google

Since the earliest days of the smartphone, tech companies have been working to reimagine these devices as tools with capabilities beyond simple communication. In February 2014, Google announced the beginning stages of its Project Tango, which brings the capacity for 3D imaging to smartphones.

On Thursday, January 7, at CES 2016, Google announced a partnership with Lenovo to bring a Project Tango-enabled smartphone to market in the summer of 2016. The Lenovo-branded device will make use of a Qualcomm processor, will launch in a 6.5-inch form factor or smaller, and will cost less than $500.

Concurrently, the pair also announced an incubator program where developers can submit applications that make use of the Project Tango software. App submissions for the incubator must be made by February 15, 2016. Currently, there are more than 5,000 developers making apps for Project Tango.

For those unfamiliar, Project Tango uses imaging technology, sensors, and cameras to track the 3D motion of a device as it moves through space, but also to map out the environment the phone is in. For example, Project Tango would be able to map out the measurements of the room you are standing in while you're using it.

Project Tango is a part of Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, which was folded into the company after their initial acquisition of Motorola. While there are a plethora of use cases for such a technology, the CES demo of Project Tango seemed heavily slanted towards augmented reality and gaming.

In a press release, Google Project Tango lead Johnny Lee went as far as to say that, "With Project Tango, the smartphone becomes a magic window into the physical world by enabling it to perceive space and motion that goes beyond the boundaries of a touch screen."

When Google unveiled its first Tango-powered phone, it was rolled out in an exclusive, limited deployment, similar to what we initially saw with Google Glass. Later, Google announced an official developer kit and a $1000 tablet to try and drum up developer interest in the technology, which it later dropped the price of ahead of the 2015 I/O developer conference.

While it's obvious that Google is pursuing the AR, and possibly even VR, spaces with the project, the potential for Tango is bigger than that. I initially posited that it could provide additional fuel for a better face unlock feature in Android phones, which it still could be, but that would be a minor use case.

University of Pennsylvania researchers attached a Project Tango device to a drone, to see if it could fly itself using the 3D maps it created of its environment. In a way, that seems like a small-scale version of what Google is doing with its Google Maps cars and autonomous vehicle technology.

However Google intends to move forward with Project Tango, one thing is clear—potential privacy issues abound with a technology like this. That is, perhaps, the biggest challenge standing in the way of its success.

It's currently unclear whether Lenovo will be an exclusive partner for Project Tango devices, or just the first in a series of manufacturers including the technology. Interested developers can submit app proposals here.

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Conner Forrest is News Editor for TechRepublic. He covers startups and enterprise technology and is passionate about the convergence of tech and culture.

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