Google (GOOGL -1.02%) has built a smartphone with features way beyond anything on store shelves today. And that's how it's going to stay for the foreseeable future.
"The future is awesome," Google says on the launch page of Project Tango. "We can build it faster together."
That's where Big G jumps into details on its new smartphone, an Android handset equipped with a plethora of experimental hardware and software. It's about as cutting-edge as you can get without breaking no-disclosure agreements and privacy laws, and the so-called Tango would probably beat any of today's consumer smartphones in a fair fight.
But you can't get one today. Or, for that matter, in the foreseeable future. "These experimental devices are intended only for the adventurous and are not a final shipping product," says Google. Only 200 units will be made at first, and they'll be doled out to hand-picked app developers. Most of the 200 prototypes already have a destination in mind, though Google is looking for great app ideas in order to find homes for the last handful.
Project Tango handsets come with a unique set of movement and position sensors. The idea is to provide a platform for the next generation of app development, where the phone itself knows exactly what's going on around it.
Think the Google Street View cars, scaled down to a pocket-sized package. Think Wii remotes with the Motion Plus accessory, or a handheld version of the Xbox Kinect platform -- only pumped up with steroids.
The phone makes a quarter-million 3D measurements every second, creating a highly detailed map of your immediate surroundings. Google is handing these out to top developers to find out what they can do with a totally new feature set.
Chances are, Google will build the most compelling of these features into the standard Android platform in the next couple of years. Then you'll find out what this advance cohort of 200 adventurous think-tanks came up with. Another bunch of new tools will turn out not to be terribly useful, and might never become standard Android features.
Google posted a few early ideas to developers. For example:
Build a 3-D map of your home before shopping for furniture.
Take mapping directions beyond the curb and into the building you're visiting.
Never get lost in unfamiliar malls or mansions.
Play ultra-realistic war games with scanned miniatures fighting for control of your house.
I can't wait to see what Project Tango yields in the end -- but patience is absolutely required. None of these new features will make it to consumer-grade handsets in 2014, or indeed for the next couple of years.
Google is working from the assumption that developers have more and better ideas than Google's own staff ever will. "While we may believe we know where this technology will take us, history suggests we that should be humble in our predictions," the launch page says. "We are excited to see the effort take shape with each step forward."
This is a uniquely Google-like way to look at the world. By contrast, Apple (AAPL -1.96%) assumes that it knows what you want before you figure it out for yourself. Developers just don't enter into the equation. Apple's tight secrecy around upcoming iPhone features means that app makers often scramble to implement the latest iPhone features even as consumers get wind of them.
This is the equivalent of government-sponsored basic research, where scientists figure out the secrets of the physical world around us with the backing of government grants -- except Google plays the part of government funding and the inquisitive scientists are actually highly creative app developers this time.
The smartphone you buy in 2020 will owe much of its enticing new feature set to today's Project Tango. Yes, even Apple's 15th-generation iPhone. Once again, Google sets its sights on the far horizon.