Bending reality with Lenovo's sensor-packed Phab 2 Pro, the first Tango phone

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The real world melts into the virtual with Lenovo’s giant Phab 2 Pro.

While the rest of the tech world has been creating VR headsets and new worlds in which to escape, Google and Lenovo have been working on a phone that augments the world we already live in: the Phab 2 Pro.

Google’s Project Tango uses an array of cameras, sensors, and software to map spaces in three dimensions. The first ever Tango device was a reference design tablet made by Google for developers, but the Phab 2 Pro brings this 3D mapping tech to a smartphone that anyone can buy.

The Phab 2 Pro isn’t just a milestone because it’s the first Project Tango phone, but also because it’s the first Lenovo phone to ever reach American shores, where the company is better known for laptops than phones.

We got an early demo of the Project Tango phone in New York ahead of Lenovo’s Tech World event to see how far the tech has come.

There’s a reason why Google’s first Project Tango device was a tablet – all the sensors, cameras and other hardware to make it work take up space. Lenovo and Google worked together on the Phab 2 Pro to make room for all of Project Tango’s specs, in a smaller design.

The result is a 7-inch phablet with a 6.4-inch Quad HD screen that’s bigger than any phone you’ve ever seen. It looks more like a small tablet than something you’d slide into your pocket and call a phone, but it is decidedly smaller than Google’s reference design tablet. Packing all the same power into a device that’s smaller than the first Nexus 7 tablet is an accomplishment for Lenovo. It may not be the 5 or 5.5-inch phone you’re used to, but it’s still manageable.

The aluminum body feels sturdy, and the chamfered edges give it a bit of grip. You can see some of the Project Tango tech on the back of the device, including a 16-megapixel PDAF Fast-Focus camera, a depth sensor, and motion-tracking sensor. But that’s not all of it. There’s also a G-Sensor, P-Sensor, L-Sensor, E-Compass, Gyroscope, Hall Sensor, and vibrator. No, we don’t know what they all do either, but they all assist with mapping space in three dimensions.

A specially made Tango Edition Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 octa-core processor and 4GB of RAM enable all the high-level processing that goes on when the Project Tango phone is mapping space. Although the Snapdragon 652 isn’t a processor commonly found in high-powered phones, Lenovo assured us that this optimized chip is the result of a special partnership between Qualcomm and Google that was literally made for the job. The Snapdragon 820, which is found in most flagship smartphones from 2016 — including the Samsung Galaxy S7, the LG G5, and the HTC 10 – runs too hot for the processor-intensive tasks of 3D mapping with Tango.

Rounding out the specs are 64GB of storage, which is expandable via MicroSD card up to 128GB; Android 6.0 Marshmallow, Dolby Atmos sound, an 8-megapixel selfie cam, and a 4,050mAh battery that supports fast charging.

As a phone, the Phab 2 Pro seemed reasonably speedy and responsive during our hands-on time. The interface is close to stock Android, which is a blessing, given the heavy-handed interface Lenovo used to put on its devices.

Since the Phab 2 Pro is aware of the room you’re in, and knows exactly how big it is, it can plop virtual elements like dinosaurs, dominoes, or appliances right into your physical space as you view it through the onboard camera. You can interact with them on the screen as if they were in the room with you.

We tried a number of demo apps to test out Project Tango’s capabilities. The software isn’t final yet, so things were a bit buggy and the apps tended to crash – a lot. Lenovo assured us that all the kinks will be worked out before the Phab 2 Pro launches in September. We very much hope that’s true, because when the demos worked, they were very fun.

A Lowes home improvement app can help you decide which furniture, flooring, or appliances you want in your home by virtually projecting them into your physical space. Since the Project Tango sensors already know the shape, size, and dimensions of your room; the app can help you determine whether that stove will fit in your kitchen, and how it looks with your cabinets. You can plunk a virtual couch in your living room to see how it looks in different spots in the room, or try out a new wood floor without ever having to buy a thing.

Related: Project Tango can remember where it’s been, making AR work even when your device is distracted

We can imagine this app being incredibly useful to interior designers, construction crews, and your average DIYer. Lenovo thinks so, too, which is why it’s actually going to sell the Phab 2 Pro at Lowes.

The Phab 2 Pro also comes with measuring apps, so you can measure anything you want in either two dimensions or three. This app is very similar to the Intel RealSense 3D imaging tech used on Dell’s Venue 7000 series tablets to do the same thing.

Tango’s tech can also be an incredible educational tool. Imagine carrying a tablet through a museum to see information about a piece of artwork right next to it, or bringing the same app home to project priceless works onto the walls of your living room.

Schools could use Tango to bring subjects like science and history alive. One of the demos we saw places realistic dinosaurs in your room with you, so you can interact with them and learn more about their history. It was really cool, and we can imagine kids absolutely loving it.

Perhaps the most obvious use case for Project Tango’s tech is gaming. We tried a couple of different demos, including a shooter game, and one that lets you set up virtual dominoes on a real tabletop. It’s easy to get sucked right into the shooter game, because you have to move around to see your adversaries and aim the phone to hit your targets.

The dominoes game was more kid friendly, but still very fun. You set up a string of virtual dominoes on a real table and knock them down either with the press of a button or with a virtual toy. It was oddly therapeutic to see a bright green dino knock over a perfect spiral of dominoes. The best part? You don’t have to pick up the pieces afterward – You just hit clear and start again.

When they worked, the demos were awesome, and gave us hope that developers will create some awesome games and use cases for Project Tango’s futuristic tech. Occasionally, the demos would crash and the Tango Core would cease functioning. Other times, the app wouldn’t understand where the surface of the ground or table was, which resulted in floating virtual objects skittering around the screen looking for something to hold on to. Hopefully all these bugs will be fixed, and it’s likely they will, assuming it’s a software issue.

Virtual reality can be disorienting — unless you’re using the HTC Vive, which uses sensors to give you a sense of the room’s shape – because you don’t know where you are. You can get lost in the world that way, but it can also hinder full immersion. Project Tango gives you a sense of space and place to ensure that you know where you are. For whatever reason, this helps ground you and makes the illusions more real.

Related: Touring a museum with Project Tango is an empowering glimpse into the future

Lenovo wouldn’t discuss VR plans, but if every smartphone had Tango tech inside, you could pop it into a VR headset similar to the Gear VR to truly mix your virtual world with the real one. That amazing dream might be the ultimate application for this tech. Right now, the problem is that the virtual elements only exist if you view your space through your phone’s screen. Looking above the phone breaks the illusion: Your dino isn’t playing in the middle of the room – he doesn’t exist at all. That’s the trouble with AR, and the reason why VR is more popular these days. However, we’d love to see the two come together to create an even more realistic and believable virtual world, and we think Project Tango is the first step toward that dream.

Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro will finally bring Project Tango to the world in September. The phablet will cost $500 unlocked, and you’ll be able to get it online or at Lowe’s home improvement stores across America. Considering the tech and the specs that power the phablet, $500 is a pretty reasonable price. It’s on par with the Nexus 6P, and $150 to $200 less than your average flagship phone, like the Galaxy S7 or the iPhone 6S.

We look forward to testing the final version and hope that the software kinks disappear. If Project Tango is going to win over consumers’ hearts, it must work flawlessly to maintain the illusion. Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro is a great start for Project Tango, and if the tech takes off, it could change the way we use our phones forever

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