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Google’s Experimental Smartphone Captures a Future Mapped in 3D

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A Project Tango prototype Android smartphone.

A Project Tango smartphone serves as the navigational brains for a drone at the University of Pennsylvania.

Credit: Giuseppe Loianno/GRASP Laboratory/University of Pennsylvania

Four months after Google unveiled Project Tango, a prototype Android smartphone with cameras and sensors that capture the phone's environment in three dimensions (3D), researchers and developers experimenting with the device say it could make it easier, faster, and less expensive to scan and map the world in 3D.

For example, University of Pennsylvania professor Vijay Kumar is using Project Tango to help an autonomous flying robot to continuously return to a preprgrammed midair spot even after being pushed or pulled away from it.

Although Project Tango does have the unique ability to combine several different technologies, such as 3D scanning capabilities and position and orientation sensors, developers working with the technology say it has a relatively short battery life, it cannot do much graphics processing, and it can overheat and shut down easily. For example, Kumar says he cannot run the flying robot for longer than five minutes without the risk of it shutting down while in flight. However, the researchers expect these issues to be resolved over time.

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