What’s Tango doing on those new VR headsets? Put differently, what isn’t Tango doing on them, and why?
With its Snapdragon 835 VR platform, partnership with Google on Daydream VR, and hardware partners HTC and Lenovo building HMDs, Qualcomm has pushed the XR industry further into much-needed territory: self-contained, untethered VR HMDs with inside-out tracking. But as we’ve discovered in demo after demo, untethered VR is completely hamstrung without a mixed reality component.
Worldscale? Not Really
Despite all the glowing talk about “world scale” devices thanks to inside-out tracking, the untethered demos we’ve seen are woefully incapable of it, practically speaking. Almost none of them give you reference to your own body (hands, feet, torso, anything). They don’t recreate any facsimile of the real world and offer no camera passthough, so although you can move about in a virtual environment that ostensibly tracks 1:1 movement (virtual:real), you’re functionally blind.
Thus, when it was announced at Google I/O that the new standalone Daydream VR headsets would use Tango technology, we presumed that they would finally offer real mixed reality capabilities. After all, we know that Tango is what they use for the inside-out tracking, and putting Tango on a smartphone (specifically the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro) proved that camera passthrough with Tango is simple enough to implement.
The front camera feeds the phone’s display. Why can’t it feed an HMD’s built-in display just as easily?
Content Or Platform?
The answer may have more to do with content than anything else. It’s one thing to enable hardware functionality, but it’s quite another to have content that can utilize it. Bear in mind that these upcoming HMDs are for Daydream, and Daydream is fundamentally about VR--not AR or MR. If there’s suddenly a bunch of mixed reality and augmented reality applications funneling into the Daydream VR content store, users are going to be confused--if they have an existing Daydream View-plus-phone setup, they can’t use MR or AR apps--and confused consumers are angry consumers. That’s good for exactly nobody.
On the other hand, there already exists a pile of Tango applications, which are of course all about AR, so there is already a content ecosystem on the Play store that could make use of camera passthrough on these HMDs.
It’s also possible that the next generation of Google phones destined for Daydream View will have Tango technology baked in, like the Phab 2 Pro does. For that matter, the Asus Zenfone AR has already proven that you can have Tango on a Daydream-capable phone. Such devices could still make use of the Daydream and Tango app ecosystems with a second-gen Daydream View “dumb” headset. All they might need to change is adding a hole in the front of the headset that the camera can peek through--literally, that may be the only change needed.
And yet...and yet. Maybe Tango needs some time to mature and grow into those capabilities. Also, simply, it's perhaps wise of Google, Qualcomm, and the likes of Lenovo, Asus, et al not to get too far ahead of themselves. There are numerous moving parts to this whole XR thing, and getting those aforementioned companies all together on platform, content, hardware, and design is no small feat.
We would be shocked, though, if the next generation of smartphone-based HMDs and standalone Daydream devices didn’t make use of Tango to deliver AR and VR (read: MR).