Apps are where it's at
The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, the first Tango consumer phone, arrived for all to admire this week. It delivers astounding augmented reality (AR) capabilities in the package of a first-rate handset, letting you interact with the real world in a completely new and imaginative way.
As I noted in my hands on review, however, a large part of what will make or break the Phab 2 Pro - and all Tango devices - is the apps that accompany it. If the apps fail to deliver a useful or delightful experience, then Tango will fail, too.
Thankfully, Tango apps are off to a good start. I checked out six applications at Lenovo Tech World on June 9 that, though still in beta, offered a glimpse at exciting AR to come. They weren't perfect and may not be subject to a ton of use after a few initial go-rounds, but each was unique and impressive in its own way. What's more, each illustrated what Tango is capable of, and that alone is reason to celebrate.
Lenovo says 30 Tango-enabled apps (including the six in this list) will be available when the Phab 2 Pro launches in September, and 100 more will arrive by the end of the year. Read on for a look at six Tango apps that herald the era of AR handsets.
OK, measuring things may not sound that thrilling, but, for me, this app is all about showing off Tango's area awareness and 3D rendering capabilities.
The Measure It app takes measurements of walls, floors, cabinets - really anything you want. It can accurately detect how big something is without you having to get down and dirty with a tape measure.
Because it can measure in a third dimension, you can literally map the outline of a table to see if it will fit in a space. While you may not have to measure stuff on a daily basis, it could be one of those, "I have just the app for that!" triumphs whenever you do.
Or, you could just start measuring everything for fun. I won't stop you.
One drawback that you'll see with other apps in this list is that Measure It requires good lighting in order for its marker points to detect and stick to an object. The beta app, at least, has trouble detecting a surface if the lighting is too low. When it works, Measure It is a solid app, but that necessity for certain conditions is one flaw of AR.
I've seen the Raise prototype app demonstrated on the 7-inch Project Tablet before, and the version on the Phab 2 Pro isn't much different.
You essentially become the owner of a blue dog, delivered to the floor in front of you in a brown box. The cartoon creature "sits" on the floor, its waggly tongue hanging out.
You can play games the pooch, including fetch. You "hold" a virtual ball using the Phab 2 Pro and chuck it to a spot in front of you. The ball will actually bounce off an object if you throw it against one. The dog retrieves the ball, and drops it back at your feet.
You can also feed your new pet a variety of snacks (I chose steak). It's all pretty mindless and might make for a fun few minutes when you need to unwind after a long day. Though it's basic, Raise illustrates Tango's ability to read a room, and perfectly illustrates how the tech layers virtual images onto real environments.
Domino World does an even better job than Raise of showing you how AR can overlay onto the real world, and how physical objects can become a part of your virtual games.
All you really have to do in this game is create a line of dominoes, though you can throw in curve balls like dragons and exploding dominoes for fun. You can lay a string of dominoes anywhere in your environment, starting on top of a table and continuing onto the floor - or wherever. Once you hit start, the dominoes will tumble one-by-one, no matter where you've placed them.
As Lenovo aptly pointed out, it takes a lot of work to set up actual dominoes, plus clean up once you've knocked them over. Domino World eliminates the mess, and lets you add in more farfetched elements to enhance the enjoyment.
This app isn't going to change the world, but it demonstrates the limitlessness AR offers users. Physical confines disappear with AR, and you're left with the ability to push the boundaries and create your own reality. It comes to life in this simple application, and it's an amazing concept.
I wasn't exactly kind to furniture-arranging AR applications in my Phab 2 Pro hands on, and while they fall into the same category as measuring apps for me (how often do you need to see how a new couch will fit in your living room?), the Lowe's Vision app does have a lot going for it.
The app lets you see what items from the home improvement store will look like in your home. The app laid gray tile on the carpet in front of me, stretching it to cover a wider surface area so I could see what it would look like in an entire room, not just small square patch.
I also put a virtual refrigerator into a nook, which is way better than hauling a 200-pound fridge home only to find out it doesn't fit or look good in my kitchen. Though I knew I was looking at an AR rendering of the appliance, it was realistic and detailed. Turns out, I wasn't a fan of this fridge, but at least I discovered that on my phone without wasting hours in the aisles.
The Lowe's Vision app shows how Tango could revolutionize shopping. You could try out an endless number of appliances and fixtures in your home without ever setting foot in a store. Prices are also listed, so you can keep your budget in mind while you're in the virtual showroom. I even imagine Lowe's adding a delivery option, letting shoppers request their new fridge be brought to their doorstep. It'd be a start-to-finish shopping experience, and one many consumers would likely take advantage of.
This is the most fun game/application I tried, but also the most difficult to get to work right.
PHANTOGEIST has you shooting phantom aliens that you detect on a radar. Red dots show which direction they're coming from, forcing you to move around a room and swivel to quickly take them out. It's all about killing evil aliens who are trying to attack you, which, come on, is always fun.
But like the Measure It app, PHANTOGEIST is finicky about lighting. It also doesn't work especially well in a room where people are moving around as it has trouble picking up points with which to orient itself. If you were in the quiet of your home, this probably wouldn't be a problem, but PHANTOGEIST is not a game for playing in crowded spaces. Because you move around so much, it pretty much eliminates playing in public places anyway, but it's worth noting the game's limitations.
One thing Lenovo threw in the mix was affixing a Phab 2 Pro to a NERF gun and letting Tech World attendees move around a mini tactical course as we played the game. I had lighting and detecting issues in this space, though pulling the NERF trigger to shoot my laser blaster was awesome. It did feel a little precarious to be walking around the course with hip-high obstacles affixed to the floor as I was simultaneously trying to focus on my phone to play the game. This illustrates a concern of AR (and VR, for that matter): keeping tabs of where you are in the real world while you also trying to lose yourself in the virtual.
Dinosaurs Among Us
I've saved my favorite Tango application for last.
Dinosaurs Among Us is an app from the American Museum of Natural History. It brings dinos to life on your phone screen, giving you a sense of their size, features and ferociousness. You can put more than one dino into a space and walk around them or get up close and personal (just watch out when the T-Rex flashes his razor-sharp teeth).
There are also fact blurbs that offer insights into the ancient creatures, giving you a little paleontology lesson along with a super delightful animation.
What I'm drawn to about Dinosaurs Among Us is its educational purpose. It shows that Tango isn't just about playing games or shopping, but could modernize education in a truly immersive and effective way. All of us are absorbed in our smartphones these days, so why not infuse new life into staid museums and deliver a history lesson everyone can relate to?
Since Tango applications are 3D and not 2D, I become more engaged with the AR than if I was looking at a flat image on a screen. There's just something about seeing what feels like a living, breathing dinosaur on the actual floor in front of me that sparks my imagination, much more so if it was a drawing in a regular app. Kids will love this app, but grown-ups will, too.