Microsoft brought 3D imaging technology into our living rooms with the Kinect and now, it seems, Google is about to put it in your pocket. Google and their ATAP team recently announced Project Tango, a smartphone prototype with proprietary hardware and software that power 3D motion and imaging technology.
According to the Project Tango site, it is "designed to track the full 3D motion of the device, while simultaneously creating a map of the environment." While it's not the first major play at consumer-level 3D imaging, Tango does add some validation to the idea that 3D imaging will be one of the next big innovations in the tech industry.
With GPS, your phone understands where it is on planet Earth but, with Tango, the individual pieces of your environment are mapped out in three dimensions. While some have hinted at this being an addition to Google's purchase of Waze to improve mapping technology; it's debut will more than likely take place as the savior of Android's face unlock feature.
The face unlock feature came with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich back in 2011 and hasn't ever really hit its stride. In fact, it famously failed during it's first live demo. Research done at the University of Notre Dame back in 2003 found that, even with less mature sensors, 3D outperformed 2D in facial recognition. Now that sensors have had over a decade to mature, their capabilities should far exceed those of their 2D counterparts.
Google is not yet ready to attach Project Tango to the Android brand. According to a Google spokesperson, "Although Project Tango devices do run the Android operating system, the program is not an official Android product today. We're still in early days of transitioning this technology out of the research labs into the hands of millions of people. While we may believe we know where this technology may take us, history suggests we that should be humble in our predictions."
Every manufacturer wants to reduce friction, especially relative to important security features that are taking front stage. Companies like Lenovo have had facial recognition features on their PCs for years, and it could end up as a premium feature for next-gen smartphones. As 2D is flattening out, Google putting Tango in the hands of developers and thought leaders could be a precursor to getting it ready for an Android partner, according to Sanjay Patel, CEO of 3D startup Personify and engineering professor the University of Illinois.
After Microsoft developed with the Kinect with help from PrimeSense, Apple bought PrimeSense, which saw a swell of rumors that the company would add 3D tech to their iPhones. Even Intel stepped into the 3D game with the announcement of their Perceptual Computing SDK. Now that Google has Tango, it's inevitable that 3D imaging will end up on smartphones at the consumer end.
Project Tango is offering a Glass-esque deployment with a high-profile limited release to people who can further the mission. This follows Google's crowdsourcing development model, helping to drive up demand and work out the bugs. The deployment, much like the one with Glass, will help Google to answer what all of this is good for.
Patel described it as "a phone that is aware of where it is in your space." Patel, whose company has been working with 3D imaging since 2010, added, "It validates what we're working on, because, at this point, Google has taken a very serious step forward at making this technology mainstream for mobile devices."
The technology for 3D facial recognition is ready, but Patel said we don't yet have a market reaction. People are still wrapping their minds around fingerprint technology, like what was marketed on the iPhone 5S and what will come with the Samsung Galaxy S5. Taking something like a fingerprint, that has long been associated with identity in the sense of a criminal case, and making it digital is an uncomfortable concept for some people. Some conspiracy theorists even argue that it is a being used to help build a fingerprint database for the NSA.
Sure, security is a hot topic when it comes to mobile devices; but Google already has access to your webcam, passwords, and search history. At the end of 2013, Google even updated Gmail to cache your images. Adding a three dimensional picture of yourself to the mix is just a drop in the bucket, and it probably won't be raising any new security concerns.
In addition to seeing the outside of someone's house on Google Earth, will we now be able to see the inside of someone's house with Tango? Probably not. However, the extra layer of data required for 3D imaging is technically an extra layer of data that Google can collect. For example, if you are walking through a retail store, Google would potentially be able to track your movements within the store and sell that data back to that retail company for marketing purposes.
Admittedly, that example is far-fetched and probably won't happen anytime soon. Still, being able to 3D map your home or work environment has potentially scary implications. When asked how they would address any privacy concerns, this is how a Google spokesperson responded:
"It is [the] early days and we are thinking very carefully about how we design Project Tango because new technology always raises new issues. With the launch of an initial set of prototype dev kits, we hope to reach professional developers who will help shape the future of this technology. We look forward to hearing feedback from the developer community and others as we enter into this next phase of the project."
Google probably has many reasons to keep this thing under wraps, but that answer doesn't do much to assuage fears of Tango users unwittingly becoming data salespeople for Google. Of course, Tango has potential in the way of games and augmented reality projects as well, but one thing is for certain—3D is coming to smartphones in a major way, regardless of who is leading the charge.
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Conner Forrest has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Conner Forrest is News Editor for TechRepublic. He covers startups and enterprise technology and is passionate about the convergence of tech and culture.