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Hands on with Lenovo’s Phab2 Pro Tango augmented reality phone

Long a leader in outdoor mapping and location-based solutions like Maps and Street View, Google has wanted to break new ground by innovating in indoor navigation and location-aware applications. It has been teasing the market with several iterations of its Project Tango (now just called Tango) technology — but ones that were only available to developers. That changed with Lenovo officially revealing the first Tango-enabled consumer device, the Phab2 Pro smartphone. Lenovo and Google jointly their announced their intent to collaborate on a phone back at CES, but now I was able to try one out and run through the apps that are expected to ship with it.

One practical application of Lenovo's Phab2 Pro is this Lowe's app that helps with remodeling and interior designThe phone itself is named “phab” for a reason. It’s thin, but big — sporting a nice-looking 6.4-inch QHD IPS-powered display. It also houses a total of four cameras — one 8MP front-facing, one 16MP traditional camera, a depth camera with emitter, and a separate fisheye camera for better motion tracking. For audio, it not only has Dolby ATMOS for output, but supports Dolby 5.1 Capture using a microphone array — apparently a first among smartphones. The phone sports a custom Qualcomm 652, 4GB of memory, 64GB of storage, and a microSD slot. It runs a Lenovo-customized version of Android Marshmallow, and is expected to be available in September for a fairly aggressive unlocked price of $499 through Best Buy in the US, and other distributors globally.

Apps include a “walk with dinosaurs” experience from the American Museum of Natural History that allows you to place, scale, and rotate dinosaurs in your room, a cool augmented reality domino game, an introduction demo, and an app that allows you to measure distances in your environment.

The Tango apps are cool, like this dinosaur demo, but still need a little workAll the apps were fun to use, but also showed some of Tango’s rough edges. For example, while I could place a dinosaur anywhere on the floor, it didn’t show up behind objects like a railing that were actually closer. Similarly, the measurement app was good for nearby, relatively contained objects like furniture, but as I moved it around to measure the distance from a nearby piece of furniture to random spots on the floor it became confused. I suspect this is due to the limitations of the emitter-based time-of-flight distance sensor.

Lenovo is also partnering with Lowe’s home improvement company to offer an application that allows you to visualize remodeling and refurnishing a room. This is similar to existing applications from Ikea and others, but takes advantage of the Tango technology to automatically scale the room and the furniture.

Lenovo is clearly aiming the Phab2 Pro at consumers, but I’m a bit skeptical how many “regular folks” will want to haul around a phablet to use these additional capabilities. There is a lot of potential for AR-based gaming — like the domino game developed by Schell Games, so I do see a lot of families looking at one of these as an alternative to the more traditional iPad to keep their children occupied. I can also see a lot of potential for vertical applications in industry, real estate, and other markets — the way that Google Glass and various other existing AR devices have found a home there.

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