Google’s working on a phone that maps your physical surroundings

Feb 21, 2014 – 2 hours ago
Brandon Bailey @ San Jose Mercury News

Why would you want such a phone? Google is inviting developers to help come up with applications, and it’s posted some ideas on a website created for what it calls Project Tango:

“What if you could capture the dimensions of your home simply by walking around with your phone before you went furniture shopping? … What if the visually-impaired could navigate unassisted in unfamiliar indoor places? What if you could search for a product and see where the exact shelf is located in a super-store?”

The prototype uses a motion-sensing camera and other sensors to take up to 250,000 measurements per second as the device is carried around, according to Google. The data is crunched by software to create a constantly growing, virtual map of the physical world.

“We are physical beings that live in a 3D world. Yet, our mobile devices assume that physical world ends at the boundaries of the screen,” said project leader Johnny Lee in a blog post. “The goal of Project Tango is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion.”

It’s an intriguing idea that represents another way in which technology might become an ever-present intermediary between ourselves and our physical surroundings. Of course, it also raises questions about who sees the data that’s gathered and how it can be used.

Project Tango’s website lists some other uses:

“Imagine playing hide-and-seek in your house with your favorite game character, or transforming the hallways into a tree-lined path. Imagine competing against a friend for control over territories in your home with your own miniature army, or hiding secret virtual treasures in physical places around the world?”

The other interesting thing about the project is its origin: Tango was started by the Advanced Technology and Projects Group at the Motorola phone business that Google bought in 2011 and is now selling to Lenovo. Google said it was keeping the research group, and Senior Vice President Sundar Pichai indicated this week that it will become part of the Android and Chrome division that he runs.

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