Google Expands Beyond Maps, Plans to Recreate Building Interiors in 3-D

Unlike Other VR Systems, Tango Project Doesn't Need External Equipment

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Google already maps the world, but the internet giant has bigger plans for its next location-based technology.

The Alphabet Inc. unit wants to digitally map the interiors of buildings in 3-D down to a resolution of a few inches, and make money in virtual reality along the way, through a project named Tango.

The company plans a big expansion of the technology this year and ultimately wants to make it ubiquitous, according to a person familiar with the situation. Job postings and recent updates to Tango's developer software show steps toward this ambitious goal. Google will showcase progress at its I/O developer conference near its Silicon Valley headquarters May 18-20.

Tango packs cameras and depth sensors along with other software into Android smartphones and tablets. Fire up the application and point the device at a space and it sucks in images and depth information to re-create the environment on the screen and locates itself within that new digital realm.

Google hopes Tango will support a system for independent developers to create new virtual reality applications and services. Video games could have characters that hide behind real-life furniture. A museum app could show 3-D animations when you walk past an exhibit. A grocery store could highlight sale items and guide shoppers to the right shelf.

Unlike most emerging virtual reality systems, Tango doesn't need external equipment to re-create the world digitally. And unlike Google Maps it can figure out the details of a space without additional data sources.

"Tango is the indoor extension of their outdoor mapping platform," said Lex Dreitser, a virtual reality developer who builds Tango applications.

Tango started in a Google research lab more than two years ago, but the company is trying to take it mainstream this year. It's going into new smartphones from Intel and Lenovo Group and the software has been updated to let it easily run on more devices. And there are signs Google is working on the most important challenge: Making Tango 3-D maps shareable so the company can someday patch them together into a single, detailed digital representation of many of the world's buildings, rooms and the stuff inside them.

Google Maps is one of Google's most successful services, used by more than a billion people every month. It's stitched into other popular Google services, like Gmail, Calendar and Photos. With more detailed maps, Google could build new advertising and location-based services into its products. It could also offer these capabilities to outside developers, letting them create more powerful applications for its Android operating system.

"If Tango could digitize every single physical commerce place, then all of a sudden Google has an exponential opportunity to place very relevant contextual physical advertising in every space," said Nathan Pettyjohn, Chief Executive Officer of Aisle411, a mobile commerce and location company that has built applications for Walgreens Boots Alliance and Toys R Us. "It literally gives me goose bumps talking about it."

Tango could also make Google a potent virtual reality rival to Facebook's Oculus and HTC's Vive. The Vive and the Oculus need separate sensors along with their headsets to map a room, while Tango does it with components in the phone or tablet. The closest competitor may be Microsoft's HoloLens, a headset that integrates the technology. Occipital, a startup, makes a device that can be attached to standard Apple Inc. iOS and Android devices to give them 3-D sensing capabilities. Apple may be working on VR and 3-D sensing too through PrimeSense, a company it acquired in 2013.

Gina Scigliano, a spokeswoman for Google, declined to comment.

In January, Google software engineer Eitan Marder-Eppstein said the technology had "a lot of potential for indoor navigation." And back in 2014, another Google engineer, Simon Lynen, said the company was researching how to use multiple Tango devices to build large, detailed maps that could be combined and downloaded to devices giving them "a human-scale understanding of space and motion."

The company is hosting four I/O sessions on Tango this year, up from one in 2015.

"With I/O it feels like they're really doubling down on it," said Andrew Nakas, who has been building Tango applications for two years. "I can do things now I had no expectation I could do back then in 2014."

Kris Kitchen, an inventor, built an application for the blind using Tango and a backpack-sized speaker called a SubPac. Tango maps a space and passes that data to the SubPac, which vibrates differently according to the proximity of objects. That gives blind people an additional sense -- touch -- alongside hearing to get around.

For Tango applications like this to reach the most people, 3-D data will need to be easily shareable among devices. That would mean one person could map a museum, and another person could build an application based on the original map, or extend it, saving effort.

Google is working on this by building a system that allows Tango devices to share maps with other devices. It may also weave all these maps together and store the information in its data centers so it can be accessed by even more devices.

Tango will "rely on cloud infrastructure to store, merge, and serve location data to specific Project Tango devices," Google wrote in a job posting in February for a mobile software engineer to work on the project. The company asked for "experience with Google Maps and other related location products."

A cloud service would make life easier for developers, according to Pettyjohn. "Right now you have to save these mapping files on the device," he said. A cloud service would make it so "anytime you need it, you pull down a file on the spot."

-- Bloomberg News