Google Tango’s advancements raises questions about Apple’s innovation

Google Tango is on the verge of changing smartphones as radically as GPS did, raising the question: Has Apple lost its innovative impact?

Google Tango’s advancements raises questions about Apple’s innovation
Karou Kawashima via Wikimedia (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

I’m going to make a prediction. Within 18 months after the next circuit shrink and iteration of the Google Tango technology, at least 20 percent of Android Phones will include Tango features as a standard feature, maybe sooner.

Google Tango, a technology platform that uses computer vision to allow mobile devices to detect their position relative to the world around them, will dramatically change augmented reality (AR). In doing so, it will leave the iPhone and iPad in its AR dust.

+ Also on Network World: Lenovo wants consumers to take Google Tango for granted, so does Google +

When Tango becomes a standard smartphone feature like GPS, it will entirely change AR experiences like Pokémon Go, at least on Android phones. Pokémon characters will actually stand on the surfaces where the GPS put them. The game’s developers could even make the characters aware of objects such as walls and furniture. Your Pokémon character might even take a seat in Starbucks next to you when you take a break from gaming for a Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew.

How Tango works

Tango is an assembly of components—three different camera technologies, sensors and software—that gives a mobile device human-like perception of space. It understands 3D the same way as a human, but better, because it doesn’t have to estimate height, length and width. It knows the object is 32.2 inches by 12.8 inches by 16.3 inches.

Using an Android device with a built-in Tango feature like a looking glass, virtual objects can be rendered into the reality seen through the device screen. Two short videos of the Wayfair (23 secs) and Lowes (47 secs) apps explain these capabilities. And the MIT Technology Review published an excellent story today that explains many of the details.

Apple has lost its innovative mojo 

Tango’s advancements highlight Apple's loss of innovative mojo. Apple isn’t producing new products or new categories of revenue. The Apple iWatch, Apple's last product introduction a year and a half ago, followed the industry and didn't pack a revenue punch to thwart the decline in iPhone unit shipments. Before the iWatch, Apple gave us the iPad—six years ago. 

Deutsche Bank analyst Sherri Scribner confirmed Apple's dilemma in a report:

“However, we continue to worry about slowing smartphone growth and elongating refresh cycles in mature markets. Given these long-term challenges, we continue to view future growth as more challenged, and see current valuations as fair.”

Innovation depends on open iteration with large communities. Apple refuses to engage in development outside of its secret labs, denying the company’s designers, engineers and developers a fertile source of knowledge that they could use to perfect new products.

Tango: The ugly duckling turned swan

When I first saw a Tango prototype at the MIT Media Lab three years ago, it barely ran for 30 minutes, became uncomfortably hot and was enclosed in a misshapen 3D-printed case to accommodate oversized hardware.

The developer edition table released two years ago was still misshapen to accommodate less oversized hardware, and it had a better, but still poor, battery life. Developers immediately understood this awkward-looking but amazing device. They bought them, met after work with other developers in coffee shops and bars, and hacked together on weekends. The Tango engineering team improved the Tango tablet, with bug reports and apps submitted by these passionate developers, all leading to an improved design. 

The Tango developer tablet grew into a swan. The Lenovo phablet phone, the Phab2, announced two months ago, is a much-refined version with a solid ergonomic design. The smaller hardware could now fit into a typical phablet form factor. A virtual dominoes app that was prototyped at a hackathon I organized last October was demoed by Lenovo during the introduction. 

Much refined, the Tango feature is like the GPS features of phones released three years ago. Power management and resolution have been improved. But to extend battery life, it might be wise to turn off the Tango feature, like what we used to do with GPS. The next iteration will improve the power efficiency again and users will forget to turn off the Tango feature, just like they forgot to turn off GPS when power management improved.

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When Tango features are a standard feature, users will start to look through their phones to interpret their surroundings and navigate precisely indoors—instead of holding their phones all of the time to text and Facebook, for example. Also, Tango might be integrated into other devices, such as AR headsets.

In the meantime, Apple innovates in secret to "create amazing products that you never knew you wanted but once you bought one, you couldn't believe you could live without it"—to paraphrase Apple CEO Tim Cook. 

It is unclear how Apple will build entirely new products, such as an autonomous car, its next AI platform or a response to Tango, without sharing and interacting with large like-minded communities. The next iPhone, iPad and Mac will be beautifully designed and engineered with amazing build quality. But these will be small overstated incremental innovations.

Voltaire said, "Perfect is the enemy of good," which is, in a nutshell, Apple's innovation problem.

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