Whether you're dressing up in dog ears on Snapchat, or tossing a Pokeball at your latest target in Pokemon GO, smartphone users everywhere are already playing around with augmented reality. But while any phone can use its camera to render graphics on top of a real-world scene, there's a special class of phones that use extra hardware to take their AR skills to the next level – those built for Google's Tango platform. We already got to know the first Tango phone last year, Lenovo's Phab 2 Pro, and now it's time see how the technology has matured as the next Tango device gets ready to make its commercial debut: the ASUS ZenFone AR.
The Phab 2 Pro may have whet our appetites for Tango, but the handset felt a little more like a proof-of-concept than something that had a real shot at being a daily-carry phone that would be a hit with users. With the ZenFone AR, though, ASUS is looking to address that with a phone that's sleeker, more powerful, and maybe most importantly, looks and feels just like a regular, non-Tango smartphone.
We're still curious to see if the ZenFone AR has what it takes to capture the public's imagination, but this week in New York City, ASUS made the case for just why this phone and its special hardware are so useful, as it gave us some demonstrations of what the ZenFone AR can do. Let's take a look at some of the apps and services ready to tap into this hardware, including both augmented and virtual reality applications.
Wayfair, being one of the largest online retailers of furniture and décor, is an eager and active partner with Asus and their AR. WayfairView is a Tango-enabled AR app which allows users to preview thousands of items in their home before buying it. Currently the catalog has about 40,000 3D product models ready and waiting to be sized up in your augmented living space. While Wayfair’s full product catalog spans more than 8 million items, 40,000 3D models is certainly nothing to sneeze at; anything not found in 3D can be sized up as a 2D object as well.
Using the app is quick and easy. Simply search the catalog for that special piece, and once selected, point the ZenFone’s cameras where you want it and simply drag and drop. Once placed, you can rotate and move the piece just as you would, were it in your home. We experienced no lag or stutter in our use of the app; everything was smoothly and quickly placed within the scene.
The app even has some smarts built in, such as the ability to recognize surfaces. More specifically, the app knows what kind of piece you’ve picked out and if it belongs on the ceiling, floor, or wall – only letting the user place it on the proper one – for instance a painting can’t be placed on the floor. We suppose most, if not all of this “surface recognition” relies on knowing which way the ZenFone is physically pointed, though programming the app to differentiate the types of pieces offered, and only allowing them to be placed where they go in real life is a nice touch, serving to ground the application in its prowess as a homemaking tool, rather than toy.
WayfairView has been integrated into the Wayfair app for the ZenFone AR, and is featured on the device via the Tango Discovery App. This is a Verizon Store exclusive and will come with a $25 Wayfair gift card for a limited time.
BMW i Visualiser
While the Wayfair app uses Tango to give you a preview of what that new clock might look like on your wall, or how a fresh coffee table could spruce up your living room, BMW's taking that to the next level with its i Visualiser app, which uses the ZenFone AR's Tango technology to let you see what your driveway would look like with a brand new BMW i3 or i8 parked in it.
The app lets users choose a spot, then renders one of those cars as if it were right there in front of you. The detail on the rendered models is fantastic, tapping into the same CAD files used by BMW engineers to design these cars in the first place. Even looking up close at the dash and user controls, small details are present everywhere, and smartly applied textures help sell the artificial reality of what you're seeing.
But the real appeal of the app comes not from just being able to check out an AR render of a fancy car, but being able to to tweak that model in real time to view the car with different wheels, paint jobs, and interior color options. Even if you were to make the trip to a dealer, you'd probably only be able to check out a handful of those combinations, while the app makes it easy to play around with those variable to find the look that's right for you.
While the i Visualiser only features a couple BMW cars, we're betting that as Tango catches on, these kind of “virtual showroom” apps are going to become much more popular.
Asus itself is also on the Tango development bandwagon, as it’s currently developing a set of augmented reality tools for education, a la Google’s Expedition’s. Meant to be executed as lesson plans, the software will work in a teacher-student configuration. The teacher will have the ability to present AR objects and events to the class, while each student has a device they can use to look around and explore the subject. Asus is still in the relatively early stages of development on this, so the number of lesson plans and depth of information for each subject is not yet clear.
One can assume, however, that the app will follow closely in the model of Tango apps like Solar Simulator, developed by Google. Affording users the ability to place much of our known solar system in their own, smaller space, Solar Simulator doesn’t just let you explore, but also learn and interact. Everything in the solar system is set to scale, giving you a somewhat surreal look at how vast even just our planetary solar system is, and invariably, how small we really are. Each planet can be visually examined closely, but the screen also brings up relevant information. For instance, looking at Saturn, you’ll see its various moons, the scale, and even its rotating speed – which you can manipulate – among other things. Once you’re done inspecting all the planets and you’ve learned all you wanted to know, you can send the planets into orbit, sit back, and enjoy the spectacle.
Holo for Tango
Augmented reality isn't just about letting you preview new products in your home, or even working as an educational tool; sometimes, you just want to have a little fun. That's just what the Holo app is built for, rendering 3D “holograms” of various characters into scenes captured with your smartphone's camera.
While there's an existing version of Holo that works with standard smartphones, a new beta version is designed to fully tap into Tango hardware, using those sensors to generate an accurate scan of the world around your phone, and using that data to even more convincingly render its virtual actors.
The 3D characters look surprisingly decent – at least, until you get super close-up – and the Holo app gives users control over their sizing and placement. You can pose with them, or act out scenes of your choice, then share your creations with your friends. It's lighthearted, goofy, and while not particularly useful in its own right, could be a good demo for how Tango hardware can help existing AR apps perform even better.
While so far we've been talking a lot about the augmented-reality angle to using the ZenFone AR, that's just the half of what this phone can do, and it's also ready to work with Google's Daydream viewer to immerse users in a world of virtual reality.
With a Snapdragon 821 processor and quad-HD AMOLED display, the ZenFone AR's hardware (at least, the non-Tango bits) isn't too far removed from that of the Google Pixel XL, so it's little surprise that the phone is ready to work with the company's VR hardware.
While Tango's likely to be the big selling point of the ZenFone AR – after all, it's got that “AR” right in the name – this VR component does help flesh out the phone's feature set a little. And maybe more than a little, it has us dreaming about what Daydream headset would look like that incorporated some Tango hardware of its own, for AR experiences like no other. We'll just have to leave that as some wishful thinking for now, but for users interested in checking out some of the best VR experiences you can access on a smartphone today, the ZenFone AR's ready to bring you along for the ride.
For even more hands-on action with all this software, check out our ZenFone AR experience video below: