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Selected folks from SapientNitro’s Digital Product Innovation team recently had the opportunity to play with Google Tango at a workshop hosted in Google NYC. The three days of hacking gave us a peek into the future of Augmented Reality. More importantly, it helped me make sense of Tango’s place within Google.

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Tango’s recent graduation from the Google skunkworks ATAP division gives the ambitious folks at ATAP some breathing time. Given the executive departure of Regina Dugan to run a similar division at Facebook, and the suspension of the developer-anticipated Project ARA modular smartphone project, the ATAP division is happy to see Tango out in the wild. Lenovo too recently launched a powerful Phab 2 Pro with Tango at its core hoping to generate developer interest and brand adoption.

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Tango enters a market that is ripe for a disruptive platform and leader. Despite having been around for over two decades Augmented Reality (AR) with its too cool for school sibling Virtual Reality (VR) has only recently garnered some real interest. Tango faces formidable competition in the likes of Microsoft HoloLens (with its headset focused on productivity by deeply integrating with Windows) and MetaVision. But Tango’s biggest competitor is a company that keeps surprising us with the amount of attention and funding it has raised. Magic Leap, now valued at $4.5B, is hinted to be one of the hottest startups in America if not in the world. Their Mixed Reality (MR) light field prototypes are the closest promise of a probable future embedded in AR/MR. Magic Leap being the only company exploring options of Mixed Reality gives them a huge competitive advantage across a landscape that is yet to prove a strong case for business investment. Lucky for Google, Sundar Pichai sits on the board of Magic Leap, and has heavily invested in the company right from the start. This relationship could possibly dictate partnerships and potential acquisition talks in favor of Google someday.

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But Tango does not have to worry about its competition; at least not for now. What Tango really needs to worry about is Brands. Pokemon Go has reignited the excitement in AR for brands who had pretty much given up on clunky AR tech and the cumbersome experience. Despite Pokemon Go’s inevitable demise in user engagement, it is by far the most successful case to justify any kind of investment in the space. And Google needs to do a lot more to keep this excitement going.

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The obvious place for Google to start is with Android. While the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro is a great device with top of the line specs, it is primarily a developer only device allowing a healthy range of options to tinker with Tango. The 6.4 inch screen makes it too big to be used as primary consumer phone. The intent behind the Phab 2 Pro is for Google and Lenovo to launch a Tango powered device for wider developer adoption, which is much needed given the pace at which the industry is moving. It’s also a smart move by Google to focus on a strong mobile strategy rather than take the route of entirely new hardware like AR Glasses/Headsets (e.g. Microsoft HoloLens, MetaVision) which have a steeper adoption curve. Given that Android penetration is healthy in key global markets this should actually be a strategy they should focus on in the coming years until there is growth of other device formats. They’ve already partnered with chipset manufacturers like Qualcomm and Intel to power devices with AR/VR capability. With Moors Law catching up, Google making its own amazing hardware, and Samsung taking a beating, this is Google’s opportunity to dictate terms from a specification point of view. We spoke to Google Engineers who see devices with the kind of power capable of supporting their vision “in the next four years”. While this may be a realistic timeline from a mobile strategy perspective, it’s one Google will have to shorten as much as it can if it wants first mover advantage in this space. The Google Pixel phone is off to a solid start and might just become the go to phone for Android lovers. Given how big a part teams like Google Daydream are playing in the Pixel phone strategy, this is where Tango as a platform could ensure richer support. One other crazy idea could be for Google to continue shipping the Nexus brand only for developers. With Pixel becoming the flagship phone model for Android, the Nexus and many flavors of Nexus could become an experimental lineup; just like what Google is doing with Lenovo, to share devices with Google tech for developers to tinker.

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Richer and deeper integration with Google Services is something Tango as a platform currently does not emphasize. I barely even saw this being encouraged by the Tango team during our workshops. Google has built its empire on some of the finest services in the industry that are used by billions of people around the world. It’s a no brainer for a platform like Tango to be deeply integrated into some of these services that could help developers create richer experiences for Tango. Tango workshops are too focused on exploring use cases in its finite set of features — the ability to measure surroundings in 3D, the ability to bring virtual objects in the real world, and the ability to navigate indoor locations. Our cohort during the workshop being the likes of AKQA, R/GA, Weiden+Kennedy, Droga5 and many more were restricted by this feature set. Most of the applications by the end of the workshop were fun and interactive gaming experiences. And there’s only so much one can do with games on a platform that’s yet to prove a business rationale, both to Google and to brands. Even Tango’s first wave of apps are all dominated by whimsical games. The only apps that catch your attention are apps like the Lowe’s and Wayfair demos that allow you to place products in your surroundings to see how they might end up looking in your home. The Verge writes “Google hasn’t proved that Project Tango is something people should want on their everyday smartphones”, and they are right. Tango as a platform is yet to prove itself on so many fronts. Even if you ignored the glitches in the system and its interim inaccuracy, Google still needs to come up with a strong purpose for pushing this vision of AR in the wild. It can only do that if it works closely with brands and builds a strong vision of the future. Google can build this vision only if it starts integrating Tango into its services. Brands already use social listening tools like Google Analytics, YouTube Analytics, Correlate, DoubleClick, AdWords etc. Google Apps allow brands to translate experiences across products used by consumers everyday. Integrations with Android Pay will allow brands to perform seamless transactions with the customer. A range of services readily available for Tango to integrate and for brands to build holistic experiences. Brands are yet to see a case that uses this approach with Tango.

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Google needs to also explore the route of making Tango an inherent camera feature on Android rather than treat it as a separate app. A deeper, more richer integration with the camera along with the flashy new Google Assistant could potentially be the epicenter for anything visual and augmented. This way Google can reduce the noise of an overloaded app experience and can create a whole new world for brands to use the default camera on an Android phone in many more creative ways. Ways that treat experiences as seamless as taking a picture. This is when the old journalists adage “The best camera is the one in your pocket” becomes true and allows for a richer experience without the gimmicks; through technology that becomes invisible and intuitive.

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Google has had a long standing history with Machine Learning, but only now are consumers really beginning to witness the power of intelligent systems in their daily lives. ‘Inbox by Google’ is actually a great example of how Gmail, one of Googles most popular services is being powered by Machine Learning. The ‘Smart Reply’ feature launched in November 2015 allows curated responses a user can choose from in order to quickly respond to an email. Google Now is an even richer example of how Machine Learning is changing the way a user’s life is being navigated and enabled by an intelligent assistant. Smart cue cards about traffic, relevant news tailored to preferences, or curation of an itinerary for the next trip and the likes are served up for the user to through quick access. All great examples of how Google is slowly, but systematically integrating Machine Learning into its products in meaningful ways. The Tango team will have to explore deeper areas in order to extend its platform from a Machine Learning perspective to align itself with Googles goal of building an AI first world with a deep focus on creating a personalized Google for everyone. The Google Cloud products are a great example of what this extension could look like from APIs that already have open access for richer, more meaningful integrations. In fact, one of the APIs that could potentially extend the features of Tango as a platform is the Vision API. Tango’s Depth Perception feature is spatially limited to 0.5–4 meters, which could be extended through visual recognition using Google’s Vision API. The insight driven by Vision API could identify the environment of the user beyond the 4 meter limit to inform Tango allowing developers to architect experiences that are context relevant. This was something we explored at the workshop through our idea and were pleased with what we achieved during the course of three days. Scaling up Tango as a platform with Google’s overall vision will help the Tango team not only build stronger partnerships internally, but also give developers and brands a more polished view to build holistic solutions.

We had hyped Tango a lot for ourselves internally and to be very honest were a little disappointed with what we could actually do with the platform after tinkering with it. What we learned in those three days was extremely valuable, extended our view of a promising future with AR, and most importantly helped us see where the technology was in its current curve. Tango needs to prove itself, and prove itself soon. Every big brand we speak to is willing to open experimental shops to tinker with the “hot new stuff”. As an agency working with these brands looking to build the next wave of experiences we need to be able to prove to these brands meaningful returns that would help convert customers; through either loyalty, perception, or monetary interactions. Tango shows a lot of promise to steer itself in this area given how prevalent mobility devices are in this day and age. It’s a solid strategy that is device independent through something we carry around almost every time. If there’s a company that can pull this off, it really is a company like Google. How Tango extends itself through that mobile strategy and the wonder worlds that Machine Learning promises will dictate where this platform goes in the next year. With Microsoft, Magic Leap and the others making big bets in this space I actually see Google having an edge with a consumer centric platform that could potentially have increased adoption through Android. It comes down to building a solid vision for Tango, at scale, so that brands can justify investment and see viable returns. We laud the amazing team of Tango for building such a genius product, and wish them the all the success in what will be a crucial year ahead. We left excited with the countless possibilities, hopeful of what may be coming soon, allowing us to go anywhere ;)

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