Will Markerless Augmented Reality SLAM Tango?
Let’s cut the jargon!
We get a lot of questions about the nuances of Augmented Reality (AR). “What’s the difference between Google Tango and Markerless Augmented Reality?” is among the most common. To really understand the answer, first we have to define Augmented Reality. Merriam Webster does so this way: AR is “an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (such as a smartphone camera).”
How does one go about creating this “enhanced version of reality”? There are competing technologies out there that use different combinations of hardware or software to achieve this effect. They include:
- Multi-camera and Sensor Tracking – Google’s Markerless AR platform, Project Tango requires dedicated hardware that includes specialized sensors, a laser, etc., to “read the room,” defining the space and allowing for the overlay of stable 3D models. Tango is powerful, but has yet to see wide adoption due to a lack of Tango-equipped devices.
- Single-Camera Markerless – A Markerless AR system that brings Tango-level quality and stability to standard tablets and smartphones by applying advanced algorithms to images captured by the camera. Single-camera Markerless solutions are device agnostic and will work on almost any tablet or smartphone, but the programming involved in developing them is not for the faint of heart.
- SLAM – Similar to Tango, SLAM implementations combine specialized sensors and algorithms to map a space and determine specific locations within it. Current SLAM-based apps offer markerless tracking, but SLAM remains behind Tango and other markerless tech in terms of quality, stability, and installed base of devices.
- GPS-based Tracking – Pioneered by Vuforia, GPS-based Markerless AR uses information collected by a device GPS to place 3D models into space. GPS-based solutions work with a wide range of hardware, but suffer from many of the same limitations as SLAM apps, including 3D models that appear to float or move in space, the inability of the user to approach the models, etc.
Think of it this way: Markerless Augmented Reality is the over-arching category, and Tango, SLAM, Single-Camera and GPS-Based are different types or models of Markerless AR — The same way Honda is a car company, and the Accord, Civic, Fit and CR-V are all models under the Honda banner. They’re all Hondas, but they’re all also quite different from one other.
Much like different models of car are right for different people and situations, there are definite use cases where one Markerless AR solution will make more sense than another. How do you choose between them? Let’s break it down.
Six keys to choosing a Markerless AR solution
There are 6 key factors when evaluating a Markerless AR solution, whether it be Project Tango or one of the other options available in the marketplace. They are:
- Object stability – Does the 3D model maintain appearance and location within a scene? Or does it seem to skip through the scene or float above the floor?
- Floor Tracking – Can the platform superimpose 3D images (rugs, alternate flooring) onto the floor?
- Wall Tracking – Can the system attach 3D models (paintings, posters) to the walls and hold them in place?
- “Approachability” – If the user moves closer to the 3D model, does the 3D model become unmoored from the scene and continuously move further away from the user? Or does it hold position and scale in size in a realistic way?
- 3D Cloud-Plotting – The creation of a 3D model of the room, which the system can then use to more accurately place 3D models.
- Device Compatibility – Does the Markerless AR solution run on specialized equipment? Or is it available on any standard smartphone or table?
Using these six keys you can evaluate potential use cases for Markerless AR and decide upon a solution that works best for your business. Here’s 5 examples.
1. Product Visualization
Allowing customers to use Augmented Reality to preview items in-store or at home has a number of intrinsic advantages, among them: increased customer confidence and lower returns. Home good retailer Wayfair has created a Tango-based smartphone app for the Lenovo Phab 2 that allows users to preview furniture, rugs and other items in their own living room. Wayfair’s app uses Tango’s spacial awareness to survey the room, locate existing items, and place 3D models of a Wayfair products realistically into the scene. The app hits six of the seven keys, in this case falling short in Device Popularity — there just aren’t enough Tango devices in the wild for a public-facing Tango app to drive meaningful changes to Wayfair’s bottom line.
In light of the lack of scalability, a Tango solution may be overkill. Markerless Augmented Reality apps, like the Harley-Davidson Markerless AR app built on Marxent’s Markerless AR, achieves the same effect using a standard camera-equipped tablet. No special hardware means a lower overall cost to the retailer considering an in-store visualization, and a much larger base of customers who already own the tech needed to shop in AR from their own living room.
2. Interior Mapping
Google has long sought to extend its mapping of the world to the insides of buildings, and Tango makes this possible. A Tango-equipped device can work as a personal guide, leading shoppers directly to the item they are looking for. A Tango tablet could also serve as a museum tour guide (see below video), or provide the real-world underpinnings of advanced Virtual Reality experiences. This spacial awareness sets Tango devices apart from traditional iPads or Android tablets, and remains the most viable solution for a retailer looking to incorporate locational information into their shopping apps.
3. Training/Education/How-To Guides
Markerless Augmented Reality’s ability to guide, teach and instruct may represent the single-best use case for the technology. It’s easy to envision a future where the appliance repair man or computer “geek squad” have been replaced by AR apps that use 3D imagery, audio and video to guide a person through a repair process. There still needs to be a viable HMD or smart glasses to make this work, but technology like Microsoft’s HoloLens show that we are almost there.
4. Social Image Filters
Snap, Inc., had a successful IPO this year, the company raising billions off the success of Snapchat, a social network famous for its temporary messages and an odd assortment of filters that stick animal noses, googly eyes and other crazy imagery into pictures. Who knew turning grandma into a deer could be so lucrative?
Snap purchased Cimagine late last year, and has since used the Israeli company’s Markerless Augmented Reality technology to launch New World Lenses, a line of AR photo and video filters. Not to be left behind, Facebook quickly announced similar features for it’s social networks. In the end, social filters will be the first AR experience for a vast swath of the general public, and the success of Snapchat now bodes well for businesses that attempt to harness these tools once they reach mass adoption.
Augmented Realty isn’t just a sales tool, of course. Pokémon Go proved there was a market for AR gaming, and developers continue to find new ways to exploit both Tango-equipped and non-Tango hardware for new types of entertainment. The question for developers is how complicated of an experience are they trying to build? For simple games, where all that’s necessary is a digital object or creature be displayed and seem to exist in and interact with the real world, any high quality markerless solution will work. However, if the game being built involves a player moving around in the real world, Tango is the way to go. For more collaborative experiences, developing for Microsoft’s Hololens may be preferable.