How Google’s Project Tango Won Me Over with AR and Art

BARCELONA - Even though smartphones, GPS and map apps haven’t been around that long, their ability to quickly and easily guide people from one point to another from almost anywhere in the world makes it painful to remember a time when this stuff didn't exist. But there are still some pretty big limits to these tools, one of which is that they don’t do much indoors, such as when you’re about to wander into a museum full of priceless, though utterly mystifying, works of art.

Most people would probably resort to ponying up for a Walkman and a pair of headphones so they can get a slow, sleep-inducing narrated tour through the museum’s winding halls. But come on. It’s 2016. We should be able to do so much better. Thankfully, with help from Google’s Project Tango and app makers such as GuidiGo, we can.

Project Tango is an effort to bring spatial awareness to Android devices using advanced visual recognition tech and camera mapping abilities. It was teased less than two months ago CES, when Lenovo announced that it was partnering with Google to deliver a consumer-ready, 6.4-inch Project Tango handheld device in June.

Although there wasn’t much to show in Vegas, Project Tango was finally read to flex its tech here at Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona.

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Project Tango covers three main topics: augmented reality, indoor way finding and gaming. At the historic Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, I got an eye-opening demo of how Tango tackles those first two categories using a tablet.

The first thing the tablet did was pull up a map of the museum. Ok, there’s nothing special about that. But then it incorporated the feed from the tablet’s rear camera, which used spatial recognition to pinpoint where I was in the building, drawing a line on the map telling me where to go. While my demo was using a preset course, with a little extra work, Project Tango could be designed to let me type in the name of a painting or sculpture so I could head straight for it.

If you’re not good with maps, Project Tango has another method of herding you around. The view from the rear cam also showed up in a corner of the tablet’s screen. One I held the tablet out in front of my face, it augmented my reality by drawing a dotted path on top of the camera's view. It’s like heads-up navigation in a car, but for the indoors.

But shuffling from one place to the next is kind of pointless if you can't get anything out of your destination. Tango helped me with that too. As I scanned around the room using the Tango tablet’s camera, little markers popped up next to certain paintings, which indicated there was something to learn.

On one occasion, I stopped in front of a massive 30-foot painting. Without Project Tango, I probably would have moved on without more than the name of the piece and the painter responsible for it. But by checking out a marker from Tango, I discovered that the massive mural was a painting done by Marià Fortuny about a famous battle during the Spanish-Morrocan War of 1859-1860. I also learned about the artistic liberties Fortuny took when portraying Moroccan Prince Muley-el-Abbas. In this case, I got a brief written description about one part of the painting, but at another exhibit, Tango played a video to add depth to my visit.

I know it sounds kind of corny, but Project Tango really does make learning more fun, and beats the heck out of a boring audio tour. Possibly the best thing about Tango is how easy it is to set up.

You really only need two things: a spatial map of the room and content to pin to specific items. Tidbits like the written description could easily be supplied by historians or museum curators. According to a Google spokesperson, that hardest part is stopping before there’s too many markers, which could overwhelm users.

Project Tango should make it easy for institutions big and small to enhance their spaces, and if it catches on, they may not even have to provide guests with a device, because the tech will already be inside the smartphones visitors have with them.

The spatial data is pretty easy to get too, because the same Tango device used to give the tour can also be used to make the 3D map. There’s no need for a secondary capture device, although you will have to set aside some time. Depending on the size of the room, it can take up to an hour to record all the information necessary to produce the map file. At least you only have to do it once.

As the demo came to a close, I started to feel sad that I couldn’t have this power all the time. What about all the other places that could benefit from the Project Tango treatment like Cooperstown, where a handheld device could show the greatest clips from every hall of famer as visitors walked past their bust on the wall? I wasn’t sure how I felt about Project Tango. But now I can’t wait to deck the halls with augmented reality.

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