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Google's Tango isn't a project anymore, but it still needs work

It should come as no surprise that we’ve been watching Google’s Project Tango with great interest. While a bit niche, Tango’s potential is there, and the team behind it is clearly ambitious. At Lenovo’s TechWorld expo, the manufacturer announced that with the release of the first Tango-enabled phone, the Phab 2 Pro, Tango is no longer a project. It’s just Tango.

Or so they say.

In reality, Tango is still in its early phases, and it’s far from a final product. That couldn’t be clearer once you spend time with a Tango phone. Even though Lenovo plans to sell the Phab 2 Pro with Tango tech in September for $500, it’s nowhere near ready to go to store shelves. Unless Google, Lenovo, and app developers join forces to fix it, the first Tango phone could be dead on arrival.

The Tango mission

Tango is Google’s name for its computer vision technology platform built for mobile devices. In simpler terms, it’s meant to give smartphones an understanding of what they “see” through a camera, so that they can map space in three dimensions.

A phone capable of understanding space can power augmented reality software that’s extremely precise, and reacts based on what’s happening around it. With Tango, a phone could become a portal into an entire augmented reality experience, a sort of half-step between standard apps and full-blown VR.

Related: Hands on: Lenovo Phab 2 Pro

An on-stage demo at Lenovo’s Tech World, for example, showed a phone taking real-time measurements of a room, and the objects in it, based only on what the camera picked up.

But it’s not an easy mission. Tango has to process a lot of data in real-time to work, and that’s where problems emerge. If it doesn’t seamlessly and accurately map space and react to physical objects in real time, the virtual elements will be distorted and disorienting.

Where’d my dominoes go?

My first taste of Tango came from a simple toy box application. It lets you drop dominoes and other toys into your augmented reality surroundings, creating a complex Rube Goldberg machine that needs no clean-up, and can be reloaded and reset on command. And indeed, when they showed off the demo, it looked like a lot of fun.

I say “it looked like” because they were hesitant to let me try it, and apparently for good reason.

When I found a Phab 2 Pro with the app installed, it had trouble finding the edges of surfaces, leaving my dominos scattered about a foot under the table in front me. While it was able to spot large objects in the way, it didn’t account for smaller obstructions, and changes in altitude seemed lost on the device.

Related: As AR blurs with VR, get ready for a mixed-reality renaissance

The phone’s errors in spatial judgement caused some serious problems for my immersion. Augmented reality toys aren’t of much use if the toys don’t interact with the environment in a realistic way. Lenovo showed this same demo on stage, it seemed to work without issue up there, but the stage is a flat, controlled environment. The app’s failure to keep up in a real world scenario left me with questions about Tango’s capabilities. It it can’t accurately map space and account for obstacles, the phone is not doing its job to create a seamless blending of the real world and the virtual elements you see on its screen.

Shooting stuff

With the not-so-hot domino demo under my belt, I wanted to see if something a little more substantial might be more refined. Lenovo provided, with plastic toy guns that had Phab 2 Pros mounted on the top. They’re designed to work with Phantageists, a game about shooting specters as they creep around you.

I quickly noticed the same issues I’d encountered with the toy box demo. The smartphone wasn’t able to accurately assess my surroundings. Geists appeared on the in-game radar, then often wandered aimlessly across and through the crowds of people and obstacles set up in the game arena. I found myself staring straight where the radar told me a geist should be, but the phone considered it “behind a wall,” and wouldn’t let me shoot it.

Related: Google plans big expansion of its Project Tango tech

When the final boss — a big worm — appeared, it emerged through a giant hole in a nearby wall. Or that’s what was supposed to happen. Because Tango didn’t understand the room, the hole appeared half-on, half-off a nearby obstacle. The effect was disorienting, and investigating it closer didn’t seem to jostle the effect’s awkward position.

Augmented reality gaming always sounds like a good idea, but if the device you’re using can’t accurately understand its surroundings, the effect is actually less immersive than it would be if the phone had no sense of space.

The good news

So why should you spend $500 on a smartphone who’s marquee feature doesn’t even work? The answer is, you shouldn’t — not until Tango’s troubles are fixed.

Luckily, according to Tango’s engineers, the problems with the current version of Tango are software-based. Detecting edges and objects, area learning, and keeping digital projections in the right place are only a matter of coding properly.

The projects shown off at Tech World are early versions, and Tango phones are capable of tracking with sub-inch accuracy, if developers choose to build and read point clouds to that exactness. The domino app, in particular, was thrown together as a demo for showing off the Phab 2, and didn’t have the development time the finished apps will.

Or so we were told. Promises of software that might at some point be great are difficult to appreciate.

In time, with the right developers, and continued support, things could get better before Tango-enabled devices start rolling out later this summer. For now, maybe Google should’ve left the “project” in front of the name.