Lenovo Group has unveiled a smartphone that can see and maps out its surroundings with help from an Alphabet 3D-scanning technology named Project Tango.
The Chinese company will become the first to sell devices employing Alphabet subsidiary Google's Tango technology, which superimposes information and digital images onto displays of the real world. An infrared and wide-angle camera orients the user within indoor spaces and precisely maps the immediate environment -- capturing the dimensions of a room or helping users navigate a shopping mall, for instance.
Lenovo hopes Tango will help it stand out in a crowded field. With smartphones sporting similar hardware and the market maturing, vendors are looking for ways to differentiate through software. The new handsets go on sale over the summer for under $500, Lenovo and Google said Thursday at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
"To break new ground in today's hypercompetitive smartphone and tablet industries, we must take innovation risks – it's the only way to truly change the way people use mobile technology," Chen Xudong, senior VP and president at Lenovo's mobile business group, said in a statement.
Lenovo and Google will offer developers funding and assistance through an incubator program. The U.S. company is looking at three main application areas: location, games and utilities. At CES, Tango project head Johnny Lee demonstrated by getting the exact measurements of a stage with a few taps, then plopped a virtual refrigerator and a sofa into the picture.
Tango may also complement Google's foray into virtual reality, via a cardboard device that can turn any Android phone into a VR headset, allowing for experiences that also overlay computer-generated images on real environments. Microsoft has demonstrated that capability with its HoloLens augmented- reality goggles, available to developers this quarter for $3,000.
"Even though you can ask your phone how to walk from your hotel to New York, you can't ask it how to get from the front door" to the CES venue, said Mr. Lee, who has a PhD in human-computer interaction from Carnegie Mellon and was the lead developer of Microsoft's Kinect sensor for the Xbox.
Tango is the product of Advanced Technology and Projects, a Motorola research outfit that Google held onto when it sold the mobile phone operations to Lenovo in 2014. Other projects at ATAP include a modular smartphone and smart fabric.
Google revealed Project Tango in February 2014, then followed that up in the summer with a tablet computer meant for developers. The technology relies on a 3D-sensing chip made by California startup Movidius.
"We think of it as visual GPS. The world is very very different because of GPS now. We actually take it for granted. My dream is that we take Project Tango capabilities for granted," Mr. Lee said in an interview.
-- Bloomberg News