Lenovo wants consumers to take Google Tango for granted, so does Google

With its introduction of the Phab2 Pro, Lenovo shatters the misconception that AR and VR are only for gamers

With Phab2 Pro, Lenovo shatters the popular misconception that AR and VR are only for gamers
Credit: Lenovo

Gamers and R&D labs creating new applications for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have been the source of enthusiasm for this new category. But most people have only a superficial opinion—or no opinion—about these exciting emergent technologies because they haven’t become relevant in their lives. The two early use cases, games and immersive 360-degree video, represent large future businesses that few people have experienced.

Yesterday, Lenovo introduced the Phab2 Pro, which is both an AR device and has all the features of an Android smartphone. It’s a more approachable form of AR because the consumer looks through the Phab2 Pro like a looking glass and doesn’t feel awkward donning a strange-looking headset or visor. It feels normal—like taking a picture or video.

The Phab2 Pro is the merger of a smartphone and Google’s Tango project that appeared two years ago in research labs, universities and hacker communities as a prototype. Tango captured many imaginations because of its four specialized cameras that could be programmed to understand the 3D real world like a human, except more precisely. A year later, the second Tango prototype appeared. A 7-in. tablet design with a big bulge in the enclosure to accommodate the cameras was sold to developers, and it garnered much interest. Developers around the world started evening meetings around the globe to explore Tango’s machine vision. At the Mobile World Congress, Lenovo introduced its first phablet with built-in Tango technology, the Phab2 Plus.

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Every new technology needs to shrink in size and become power efficient. Lenovo and Google worked together with camera and sensor suppliers to shrink the four special cameras to fit into a phablet-sized smartphone and to extend the battery life with optimized hardware, software and a 4050 mAh battery to handle the extra load of the cameras and to process the image stream. It’s housed in an attractive aluminum unibody, looking and acting like a big smartphone.

During yesterday’s introduction, Lenovo repeatedly emphasized that this new technology could win mass adoption when the novelty of a machine’s human-like understanding of 3D space was forgotten—replaced by the usefulness of the right app. Lenovo began by comparing Tango’s machine vision hardware with Google Maps navigation. Google Maps get people to locations millions of times a day without consumers thinking about the amazing feat of engineering involved in handheld GPS navigation every time they use it. Lenovo said it wants people to use Phab2 Pro AR apps similarly—millions of times a day without giving a thought to the novelty of Tango’s machine vision.   

Product leader Jeff Meredith said, “We believe that … [Tango machine vision] could become so pervasive that you would take it for granted. That it would disappear into the background.”

Phab2 Pro demonstrated

phab2 pro Lenovo

Using Lenovo's Phab2 Pro to take measurements

The first demo showed how Tango replaced the tape measure. Drawing a line across a 3D object rendered on the screen by the Phab 2 Pro’s camera produces an accurate measure relevant to consumers who to take measurements.

The relevancy of the Phab2 Pro increased with a demonstration of an interior design app created by Lowes, the home and building supply store. Lowes demonstrated how the real-time 3D image of a home setting, seen through the Phab 2 Pro’s four cameras, could be redesigned. Virtual rugs were added and a virtual leather chair dropped in, allowing a consumer to see the environment and not have to imagine it based on small rug samples and images of furniture.

Lowes also demonstrated how the Phab2 Pro will replace the traditional method of deciding what color to paint a room. Instead of buying sample cans of paint and then painting multiple swatches on the wall to decide on a color, users will look through the Phab2 Pro at the 3D image of the room and cycle through every color until the right one is discovered. If the Lowes app is successful, sample swatches, half-pint sized paint samples and furniture catalogs will be used as infrequently as large, multi-fold paper maps are today.

That the Lowes mobile R&D team has experimented with many forms of AR and VR and chose to build its first AR app for the Phab2 Pro is further evidence that the timing is right for the Tango-enabled Phab 2 Pro to be the first mass-marketed AR device.  

Google’s Tango engineering chief, John Lee, demonstrated other apps, including overlaying dinosaurs and the solar system into reality, but none as impactful and relevant as the Lowes app. Success rests on more game-changing apps like the Lowes’ interior design app and good battery life.

The Phab2 Pro is a smartphone, too

Here are the specifications to prove the Phab2 Pro is also a smartphone.

The large 6.4-in. quad HD display is powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 652 processor. It has a 16-megapixel camera, 4GB of RAM, a fingerprint scanner and a 4050 mAh battery.

The specs of the Phab 2 Pro’s four cameras that create the Tango 3D vision are an 8-megapixel front camera, a 16-megapixel rear RGB camera, a depth-sensing infrared camera with an imager and an emitter, and a motion-tracking camera.

If Lenovo attracts more really relevant apps like the ones demonstrated yesterday, other Android device OEMs will be persuaded to add Tango’s machine vision to their devices like they did with the universal GPS sensors and many location-aware apps. One day, like GPS, it will become common usage. It will take another design iteration or two, like early GPS-enabled phones, to shrink the size and reduce the power budget impact to a negligible level.

The Phab 2 Pro will go on sale in September at Best Buy and Lowes priced at $499.

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