Project Tango–Google’s landmark augmented reality platform–will shut down starting March of 2018. There will be no more official Tango phones or tablets, nor will there be support for the Tango software development kit. No one from the Tango team has left Google, but the announcement marks the sun setting on one of the company’s most closely watched experimental projects.
Tango, which began in 2014, was the brightest star in Google’s ATAP division. It combined a depth sensor, camera, and software that allowed you to map the full 3D space of a room. The technology enabled all sorts of unprecedented augmented reality effects, because it effectively merged the digital world and the physical one in both its code and stunning visual effects. In recent years, we’d seen Tango used to create everything from better navigation systems for disabled people to digital graffiti.
Notably, the death of Tango comes just months after Microsoft announced the discontinuation of Kinect. Both worked with similar depth-sensing cameras, and Tango was even developed by a former member of the Kinect team, Johnny Lee.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall when the Tango team was folded into Google’s VR division during the development of Daydream. Rather than pushing Tango, requiring the aforementioned specialized depth-sensing hardware to map space in true 3D space, Google shifted its focus to ARCore, which can glean similar but far less rich data from a single, standard smartphone camera.
In the immediate term, this focus on ARCore means that Google can improve augmented reality for a vast majority of Android phones and tablets that are actually on the market, rather than continually prototyping the future through wave after wave of impressive Tango tech demos. And frankly, single camera augmented reality, pioneered largely by apps like Snapchat, has gotten surprisingly good, surprisingly quickly.
Still, those Tango demos–rarely shared online, but presented to anyone attending certain sessions at Google’s I/O conference–were astounding. Lee, an academic researcher at heart, was a refreshingly soft-spoken showman, who demonstrated things like a Tango tablet mapping the full XYZ space of a house (staircases and all!), then tracking the 3D architecture of a roller coaster in real time. He showed practical ideas, like crisp, augmented reality rulers measuring home decor, to wild scenes, like giant dinosaurs invading a conference hall with Jurassic Park splendor. While doing so, Lee would temper expectations of his own hype, stressing how difficult problems like mapping persistent objects in these spaces were to his team today, and would be to the research community at large for a very long time. Of course, Google learned from Tango, and some of those lessons are inside ARCore itself. But Tango’s technology isn’t sleeping in the code.
Meanwhile, Apple has just begun using a depth-sensing face-mapping technology to unlock its iPhone X and create animoji. Apple is a perennial trendsetter in smartphone hardware, and if it continues to expand the use of depth-sensing cameras in its phones, you can expect that Android will follow–at which point, Google would undoubtedly look at incorporating more of the Tango tech into ARCore.
In other words, it’s all a bit ironic. After shuttering Tango, it might be Google’s fiercest competitor, Apple, that makes Tango’s quirky, esoteric technology a hit.