scorecardresearch Skip to main content
hiawatha bray | tech lab

Augmented reality is just getting started

Johnny Lee, engineering director of Google Tango, talked about the room sensing features of the Phab2 Pro phone during the keynote address at Lenovo Tech World event in June.Eric Riseberg/AP Photo
One week after its debut, I’ve had enough of “Pokemon Go.” Soon enough, many of you will agree with me, and not just because you’re bored with chasing cartoon monsters through the streets of Boston. Having tasted the remarkable yet primitive augmented reality (AR) system that makes the Pokemon game work, millions of us will hunger for something better.

And here it comes.

In “Pokemon Go,” the famous Pokemon creatures seem to appear on streets, in parks, or on the steps of public buildings. The software projects the digital images on top of real-world video captured by the phone. Similar AR smartphone games have been around for years; “Pokemon Go” is merely the first of them to attract a massive audience.

The game’s AR effect is amusing enough, but it’s pretty crude. For instance, if you walk toward the Jigglypuff creature displayed on your screen, it doesn’t get larger, as a real object would. Nor can you walk around the image and view it from different angles. It’s just a flat, two-dimensional cartoon, pasted onto your screen.


For me, the novelty wore off pretty fast, because I’ve had a taste of AR at its best, in the form of Microsoft Corp.’s experimental HoloLens device. It’s a head-mounted computer that fills the world with fully formed three-dimensional images that you can view from any angle. It’s a stunning effect, and far more impressive than the visuals of “Pokemon Go.” But then, the video game is free of charge, while HoloLens costs $3,000 and is currently available only to software developers and marketing companies.

So for now, AR fans must settle for “Pokemon Go” and other such games. But not for long. Last month, the Chinese electronics firm Lenovo announced the impending release of the Phab 2 Pro, a new smartphone that could make high-quality AR more popular than selfies.

Set to go on sale later this summer with a starting price of $499, the dreadfully named Phab 2 Pro is the first product to feature a technology called Tango, developed by Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google. Tango solves the problem of low-quality AR in the best possible way. It uses the phone’s cameras to generate remarkably accurate maps of a user’s surroundings. This makes it possible to add three-dimensional digital images that look and act more like real-world objects.


To accurately project images onto real surroundings, it’s necessary for the computer to know your exact location, and the location of every nearby object — walls and floors, tables and chairs. “Pokemon Go” is so crude partly because the game has only a general idea of the player’s surroundings, not a precise digital map.

Pokemon is back, with a new tech twist that is thrilling kids and millennials who fell in love with the pint-sized monsters in older versions of the video and card game.
Pokemon is back, with a new tech twist that is thrilling kids and millennials who fell in love with the pint-sized monsters in older versions of the video and card game.

Microsoft HoloLens solves this problem with a bank of head-mounted cameras that generate a 3-D map of the room where it’s being used. But Google is doing the same kind of mapping with cameras mounted in a cheap, lightweight smartphone. The results are remarkably accurate.

I saw a demonstration of Tango earlier this year at the CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, in which the software was used as a sort of remote tape measure. It could calculate the height and width of tables or the distance from floor to ceiling, simply by looking.

Now imagine shopping online for a new washing machine. Home improvement retailer Lowe’s has built a Tango app that will map your laundry room, then let you add a digital image of the washer, so you can confirm whether it’ll fit. Or say you want to know what a new chandelier will look like in your living room. Tango lets you see before you buy.


Ever get lost in a shopping mall or an airport? Google has built indoor maps for thousands of such venues around the world. With Tango, you’ll now view those maps in AR. Tell the phone you’re looking for Macy’s, and point the phone’s camera at the floor. A pathway appears on screen to guide your steps.

Someday you might download a Tango app before touring the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, so your phone will know exactly where you are. Stop in front of Claude Monet’s painting “Meadow with Poplars,” and you might see a three-dimensional image of the artist and a brief biography.

And of course, there’s gaming.

In a Tango version of “Pokemon Go,” you’d still have to walk several miles before anything exciting happens. But at the end, you’d find solid-looking monsters that could plop down on a park bench and wait for you to show up.

The “Pokemon Go” craze will wane along with summer, unless fans expect to hunt for Pikachu through ankle-deep snow. But demand for rich, robust AR products like Tango is about to heat up.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.