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Google Brings the "Epic Shit": 3-D Scanning, Modular Phones and Digital Storytelling

Saving the best for last.

Google saved the best for last. Coming soon from the search giant: a 3-D scanning tablet, a modular phone platform, and digitally rendered interactive story created from hand-drawn animations.

At least a one audience member snoozed through Google’s I/O keynote this week during a less than action-packed series of announcements. Sure, it’s a nerdy developers conference. But remember, just two years ago Google pulled out all the stops with skydiving Google Glass wearers.

On Thursday, the company showed off a few hot gadgets and projects at a packed Thursday breakout session on Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP). The group, which was part of Motorola, rejoined Google as a unit of Android.

Two-year-old ATAP has eleven projects, from acoustics to wearables, said its leader Regina Dugan, who likes to call the group “a small band of pirates trying to do epic shit.” She formerly was director of the Pentagon’s research group DARPA.

One of the ATAP projects getting closer to broad release is Project Tango, which is building camera and depth sensor systems to create detailed and accurate 3-D indoor navigation representations without GPS, to be used for games and augmented reality.

ATAP has demoed various versions of Tango, including special phones and most recently a $1,024 tablet for developers. That includes a premium camera with both a wide fisheye lens and a more traditional lens, a motion tracking camera, a depth sensor and a super-powerful processor from NVIDIA.

A six-inch tall virtual wizard
A six-inch tall virtual wizard

At Google I/O, Tango lead Johnny Lee gave a live demo of playing games and mapping the room with the Tango tablet, which included a funny bit where he interacted with a tiny six-inch-tall virtual wizard by actually squatting down to his level while holding the tablet. Lee announced ATAP would be working with LG to make a consumer-scaled device next year.

Then Paul Eremenko, head of ATAP’s Project Ara, gave an update on its modular smartphone efforts. The point of Ara is to allow people to make smartphones out of their own chosen components, and to replace them at will when newer ones become available or older ones fail.

“Just a few short weeks ago we were tethered to a laboratory bench. Since then, we cut the umbilical,” said Eremenko, who then demonstrated a freestanding Ara phone booting up — sort of. It got paused after the Android logo showed and only part of the home screen clock had become visible. It still got big applause.

Android boots (mostly) on a Project Ara phone
Android boots (mostly) on a Project Ara phone

Eremenko said Ara is currently working to develop “contactless” data transfer and an electro-permanent-magnetic approach to putting the phone components together, so they can be durable and small. That involves miniaturizing current EPM systems by a factor of a thousand, since they are traditionally made to pick up large, heavy objects like cars.

Ara isn’t ready for people to buy and use anytime soon (it barely booted up), but Eremenko said a prototype run would be fabricated for participating developers in the next two weeks, and a developer version of Android with modularity support would be available this fall.

Lastly, Dugan demoed ATAP’s foray into storytelling, which she described as an attempt to bring humanity and emotion into technology. ATAP has created two interactive stories for Motorola phones, and its big new project is bringing in the storied Disney animator Glen Keane as a member of the ATAP team.

Keane has composed a hand-drawn, interactive love story about a dancing girl called “Duet” that will be released on all Android phones later this year. The audience got to see a non-interactive theatrical version of the piece.

“Glen is at once an amazing rendering engine, but he’s very high latency. He just can’t draw in real time on the screen,” explained Dugan. “Glen is able to create seamless transitions, like the transformation of characters as they grow. No technique in CG will allow that to happen. No mathematical encoding will enable you to do such a transformation. That meant what was once a mathematical representation of the line became a graphite stardust field.”

It turns out this is a love story about compression, in a sense. “10,055 drawings became 13.5 GB of data, and we used an entire hierarchy of compression to fit that into 150 MB,” Dugan said.

But really, it’s a love story about a dancing girl and a boy and a dog. (You can watch the non-interactive version via the video of the session at timestamp 1:15 here)

“Whether you’re an artist with a pencil or programming on a keyboard, were standing on one another’s shoulders to reach higher than any one of us could do alone,” Keane added.

Then at the end, they passed out digital tattoos.

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