Google finally admits you don’t need special hardware for augmented reality

Google’s augmented reality lets your table grow faces. Practical and fun!
Google’s augmented reality lets your table grow faces. Practical and fun!
Image: Google
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In 2014 Google said it was going to revolutionize the way we use smartphones through augmented reality. With AR, developers who built apps that worked on Android phones could drop virtual objects alongside real ones through the phone’s camera. These fictional objects would look like they existed in real life, dramatically changing the experience of using a smartphone.

Google laid out its attack plan, called Project Tango: Because AR was a complex technology, the next generation of smartphones would be studded with depth sensors and other curiosities. Together with Lenovo, Google would create a new smartphone, which would be eventually announced three years later, in January 2017. The company showed off a little 3D dog that hopped onto a real-world pedestal, and placed digital Ikea chairs around the stage. Augmented reality was here, if you bought the right phone. And if Google could cajole developers to create apps for it.

Except it turns out that digital dogs don’t thrill smartphone users, who just want phones that look nice and take good photos.  Then in June 2017, Apple announced that, unlike Google, its phones didn’t need specialty hardware for AR.  Developers began building new iPhone apps that will create even better digital pets for Apple’s phones due out this fall. 

Google today officially killed the idea of special sensors for AR phones. The company announced ARCore, its own developer kit for building AR on standard Android phones. Google said the kit uses the same technology as Tango, but without those other sensors. Developers can tinker with it on the Google Pixel and Samsung S8 phones.

Air travel visualization in Google’s ARCore.
Image: Google

Google seemed to learn from seemingly-narrow applicability of Tango, creating a website that shows more than a dozen projects already using ARCore. The experiments are mostly art-related, and don’t have the applicability of a turn-by-turn navigation system or a virtualized bike route, but they show how seamlessly AR can be laid over a camera view.

Rumor has it that Google will announce a new Pixel phone in October, so we’ll likely see more examples of what the software can do. Until then, it’s up to Android developers to make the magic happen, no special hardware required.