Google is officially rolling out its latest Augmented Reality feature to developers through a new Software Development Kit (SDK) named “ARCore”. The new rollout will allow Android smartphone users to generate 3D objects and figures on their phone screens using camera input and navigate around their surroundings. This is something very similar to Pokémon GO’s VR feature, but the application of ARCore is much bigger.

The ARCore SDK is still in “preview” mode but Google says that it will bring “augmented reality capabilities to existing and future Android phones.” Android developers can start testing this by heading here. This is also an update to Google’s earlier AR project name Tango which was first unveiled in 2014 for a closed set of developers and researchers. In order to run Tango’s AR capabilities, user’s required additional built-in sensors. Google had initially manufactured two closed-circuit devices named Peanut phone and the Yellowstone (a tablet) to test Tango in 2014. However, with ARCore SDK set, the company promises AR processing on Android phones “without any additional hardware”.

An example of ARCore at work

The AR feature is currently live and supports devices including the Pixel and Samsung’s S8, running 7.0 Nougat and above. “We’re targeting 100 million devices at the end of the preview. We’re working with manufacturers like Samsung, Huawei, LG, ASUS and others to make this possible,” Google said in its blog post. So this means Project Tango has transitioned into ARCore. It’s not clear what Google plans to do with Tango, but we have mapped out the company’s journey from Tango to ARCore at the end of this post.

Features of ARCore

  • Motion tracking and environmental presence: Using a phone’s motions sensors, ARCore can determine position and orientation (or pose) of the smartphone when it’s moved. This allows 3D objects generated to stay in their fixed point. For e.g. if the 3D object is placed on a table then ARCore can “detect horizontal surfaces using the same feature points it uses for motion tracking,” the company said.
  • Light estimation: ARCore can detect ambient light in a given environment and then allow developers to change light settings of virtual objects on the screen, giving it a more realistic look. The brightness and contrast of the 3D object changes as per light settings of the room or an environment.

Competition in AR segment

Google’s ARCore SDK is similar to:

  • Apple’s ARKit SDK:  This was unveiled for developers this year during WWDC 2017. ARKit runs on iOS11 and allows developers to build AR based applications for iPhones and iPads. It uses visual image processing techniques to track objects in a given environment and boasts of an AR engine which calibrates on a real-time basis.
  • Microsoft HoloLens: Microsoft had started shipping its $3,000 HoloLens development kit in March 2016; it also revealed a HoloLens emulator that allows a user to test holographic apps on a PC without a physical HoloLens, using a new development tool set.
  • Facebook AR studio: This is Facebook’s camera effects tool that allows developers to put 3D objects in a captured image.

Google’s journey from Tango to ARCOre

In 2014: Project Tango was born out of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group in early 2014. ATAP conducted research and development to turn a potential idea into prototypes or working products. It was originally created under Motorola. Remember that Google bought Motorola in 2012 and then sold it to Lenovo in 2014. But the ATAP team remained, while Project Tango was led by Johnny Lee, who is considered as an important contributor to Microsoft’s Kinect product.

Lee, while working for Google in 2015 had told PCWorld in an interview: We think that computer vision to mobile devices is an inevitability… We’re trying to get ahead of that curve a little bit by creating the software development platform that integrates the motion tracking and the depth sensing to be able to create these interesting experiences.”

Between 2015 and 2016: Google had launched Peanut phone and Yellowstone, a 7-inch tablet under Tango to test AR capabilities in early 2014 itself. The Verge reported in July 2015 that more than 3,000 of these closed devices were sold to a select number of researchers and developers. Prior to this in May 2015, Google struck deals with chip makers Qualcomm and Intel to develop reference devices for Tango, which will be later on used by mobile phone and Original Equipment Manufacturers. Finally, Tango was unveiled through an integration in Lenovo Phab 2 Pro for the public at a CES event in January 2016: Lenovo Phab 2 Pro used Qualcomm’s reference design.