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August 4, 2017

Google’s Tango and Apple’s ARKit approach augmented reality from opposite sides

by John_A

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If you ask half the tech world right now, Apple is on the verge of inventing augmented reality.

While some degree of eye-rolling is appropriate, it is true that ARKit is going to accomplish something special by being available on such a large number of phones and tablets with nothing more than a software update. It’s the kind of thing that gets Android owners wondering why Google didn’t go this route, choosing instead to invest so heavily in what we now call Tango.

While checking out the ASUS ZenFone AR, the first Tango phone people will actually buy, I decided to ask around and see what the people working with this tech every day had to say.

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A big part of understanding the functional difference between ARKit and Tango is actually trying the two approaches to AR out for yourself. Apple’s approach is simple, lightweight, and fun. ARKit lets you choose a point in front of the phone, and the augmented layer exists based on that point. You can walk around that point, and you can walk up to and away from that point, and the combination of motion sensors and accelerometers in the iPhone gives you a reasonably accurate translation in the real world. If you haven’t seen the demo videos, you should do that.

But if you’re going to call ARKit high-end augmented reality, it’s almost appropriate to call Tango something else. Tango can’t be released into the world with a software update, because it requires specialized hardware to be aware of the world around it. When you place a virtual object in front of you with Tango, the phone is able to detect far more than just that one point. The software is able to “see” the shapes around it. Tango phones can tell which wall you are facing in the room you are standing in, and can tell when you have left the room with the virtual object in it.

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The things you can do with Tango open the doors to a universe of things ARKit simply isn’t capable of, and that’s not coming from me. After showing me how Wayfair plans to use Tango to let you place furniture in your home before you buy it, R&D lead Mike Fiesta explained why Tango is the platform he’s worked with the most.

I’ve been very impressed with Tango. It’s very stable and accurate. We started working with the dev kit two years ago, and it has come a long way since then. You can move things around in the room, leave and come back, and when you do everything stays in place. I’ve been really impressed with the scaling and tracking.

While Wayfair is often perceived as just a retail company, the tech side of this organization is actively pursuing all forms of VR and AR to better understand how people shop. Fiesta said Wayfair is eventually looking to use Tango for scanning furniture into AR as well, once the cameras are good enough to create the kind of millimeter accuracy needed for that kind of thing. He also pointed out the number one barrier for a lot of novice AR users right now, regardless of platform, is trying to pinch to zoom instead of just leaning in closer to the virtual object in order to see it larger.

ASUS firmly believes Tango will be where developers go in order to build AR apps with substance.

So are these functional differences going to be important to consumers? ASUS certainly seems to think so, after taking to several of the PR and product specialists who have been using this tech for the last couple of months. For ASUS, Tango is the thing you buy when you want to experience the best in AR.

What Apple is doing with ARKit is impressive to be sure, but there have been no demos so far of any substance. It’s cool to see a rocket land on a drone ship, but ASUS firmly believes Tango will be where developers go in order to build AR apps that matter. Rich, interactive experiences that last more than a few minutes are the kind of things Tango was built for, and Asus expects that difference to become clear quickly when these two platforms are compared this holiday season.

Of course, the kind of experiences being described here weren’t even on display at the event ASUS was holding to celebrate this very phone. Of the six AR demos on display, the longest experience I had was only a couple of minutes. It’s fun to walk around a BMW i3 once or twice, and who doesn’t want a photo standing next to a virtual Lion, but showing off the more complicated Tango experiences takes time ASUS wasn’t willing to spend in a demo floor. These apps already exist, and those who buy into the ZenFone AR pitch will love them, but it rings a little hollow to brag about being more capable than the unfinished and not-yet-publicly available ARKit only to then show things that even one of the “product specialists” at the ZenFone AR event admitted to being a little gimmicky.

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It’ll be a little while before I’m ready to publish a full review of the ZenFone AR, and even longer until it’s time to compare the latest Tango apps to the best of ARKit, but it’s clear there’s some expectation a substantial quality difference between the two. While that should technically be the case, I’m eager to see if Apple users care.

Perhaps more important, will developers care about “better” if there are are potentially millions more eyeballs on another platform? I think we’re going to find out very quickly.

See ASUS ZenFone AR at Verizon

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