In 2012 Google (GOOG) began the process of dethroning Apple’s (AAPL) iOS as the dominant tablet platform by releasing a 7-inch Nexus tablet running Android for just $199. With the cheapest iPad at the time going for $499, Google’s low-ball pricing strategy was a winner.
So what would you think if I told you Google has another 7-inch tablet in the wings … but it’s priced at $1,024?
Project Tango will be a developer-only release at first, but after battering the iPad with cheap Android tablets, it looks as though Google is preparing to take a run at the high end. The company is betting that the capabilities of this 3D tablet will lead to the next big wave of mobile technology, and this time, rather than play catch up to Apple, it will be in the lead.
Project Tango: Small Tablet With Serious Specs
One of the reasons manufacturers are able to offer 7-inch tablets for considerably less money than a full-sized iPad is that a smaller display has lower hardware demands.
With fewer pixels to move around, the demand on the GPU and CPU are lower, so the device doesn’t need the latest and greatest mobile processor to return decent performance.
Google’s Project Tango reverses that equation.
Project Tango leapfrogs to a very powerful Nvidia Tegra K1 chip (packing 192 supercomputer-class GPU cores for extreme graphics capabilities), instead of the usual 1GB or maybe 2GB of RAM, Project Tango has 4GB, and where most 7-inch tablets ship with 16GB of storage, Project Tango has 128GB.
Project Tango: 3D Tablet Requires Advanced Hardware
The reason for making Project Tango such a muscle-bound piece of gear is that it is a 3D tablet. An earlier 3D smartphone Google developed as part of the project ran into limitations because the hardware you can stuff in such a compact case can’t match the more powerful chips a larger tablet form factor can accommodate.
According to Google’s Project Tango home page, that means a motion camera and other sensors capturing more than a quarter of a million 3D measurements every second — motion, depth-sensing, position and orientation — crunching all that data to provide a real-time 3D model of the space around the Project Tango device.
That takes a lot of horsepower, and the Tegra K1 — with its emphasis on graphics processing — is well suited for the task.
Project Tango: Why Build a 3D Tablet?
Google states the case for Project Tango this way:
“We are physical beings that live in a 3D world. Yet, our mobile devices assume that physical world ends at the boundaries of the screen. The goal of Project Tango is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion.”
In other words, this 3D tablet isn’t necessarily about 3D in the sense that Nintendo’s (NTDOY) 3DS is about playing video games with a three-dimensional appearance, or the 3D effects and gesture tracking that Amazon (AMZN) is expected to introduce into an upcoming smartphone.
Instead, Google is positioning Project Tango as a device that takes mobile virtual mapping to the next level, being able to navigate not just to an address but within buildings and even to a specific location on a store shelf.
Of course, a device with these advanced 3D capabilities also holds real potential for virtual reality and gaming.
Project Tango: Developers Only (For Now)
Even if you had more than $1,000 to throw at a 7-inch 3D tablet, you can’t pre-order one. At least, not unless you’re a developer. No “Explorer” program a la Google Glass at this point.
Google is still developing APIs and offering Project Tango as a developer kit. Going back to the previous point, the question “why build a 3D tablet?” is one of the primary reason Google is making the hardware available while it’s still in the prototype phase. It’s hoping the developer community — armed with the experimental hardware — will help it to discover the killer app that makes a 3D tablet the must-have device of the future.
Maybe the sensors, chips and software behind Project Tango will end up incorporated in one of those robots Google is working on. If so, there may be nowhere to hide….
In the meantime, Project Tango remains an exclusive, expensive and intriguing Google project.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.