Archaeology with Google’s 3D Mapping Project Tango Phone

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Google Project Tango smartphone
Google's Project Tango Smartphone

Archaeological research could benefit from Google’s new 3D modeling device. But are archaeologists ready to explore its potential uses?

I’m sure it has come to no surprise that the demand for technologically trained archaeologists has increased within the past decade. Tools like GIS, GPR, pXRF and LiDAR that were once considered a non-option for some projects – usually due to associated costs – are now becoming a necessity for any field project. Well now thanks to Google’s recently acquired Advanced Technology and Projects (GATAP), there is a new player in town. The new device, dubbed Project Tango”, will allow people to interact with their environment in a radically different way. It might also allow archaeologists to interact with their field project in a different way, too. I’d like to begin a discussion on its practical uses in the social sciences – particularly historical preservation and archaeology. What could this mean for virtual archaeology?

What is Project Tango?

An Actual 3D Indoor Map Of A Room Captured With Project Tango
An actual 3D map of a room taken with Google’s Project Tango device

The Tango prototype is basically an Android phone containing customized hardware and software that allows the phone to record its position at all times. The sensors take over a quarter million 3D measurements each second – updating position and rotation of the phone and fusing the information into a single 3D model of the environment. The project is still in very early stages of development, and is currently seeking applications from developers to help create software and applications for the device.

Unfortunately, Google has yet to release any real specifics. Little information has been made public regarding the exact type of 3D sensing the phone will be using. The only data I was able to gather about its specs is that it has a “4 MP camera, motion tracking camera, a depth sensing sensor and a ‘vision processor’ manufactured by Movidus.” Is this basically a Kinect packaged into the size of a phone? Or rather is it something so radical that it tops any previous 3D sensing tools? Will it have the processing power necessary to record entire sites out in the field? How about the ability to transfer the data through a mobile network? There are still a lot of unknowns, but it doesn’t hurt to start brainstorming uses for something like this.

Applications in Archaeological Research

Imagine if while on survey, an archaeologist is able to pull out a device the size of a smart phone, and instantly record various surface artifact data. Size, relief, color, shape, spatial data – all of it rendered into a 3D model with one instance of 3D sensing.

Perhaps such a lightweight device could be outfitted to be attached to a small UAV – or drone as somelike to call it. This could allow for 3D scanning of hard-to-reach places like rock art along a cliff face or the upper floors of a crumbling historic building.

Example of Augmented Reality to Learn About Dinosaurs in Redwood State Park. Many state and national parks now offer mobile apps with augmented reality viewers built by Chimani, an outdoor mobile app developer. (http://www.chimani.com/)
Example of Augmented Reality to Learn About Dinosaurs in Redwood State Park. Many state and national parks now offer mobile apps with augmented reality viewers built by Chimani, an outdoor mobile app developer. (http://www.chimani.com/)

Consider, too, its potential in public archaeology. It could create a cheaper and easier way to build an augmented reality mobile app of a particular site. A Tango user would just need to scan a site while walking through it, then later can present that virtual world to a group of school children who may not be able to ever visit such a place.

Another possibility: 3D modeling artists may be able to conceptualize what a site would have looked like during its occupation using the actual measurements taken from the site’s remains. Imagine visiting a historic fort and just by rotating your own phone, would be able to see an augmented reality version of what the fort originally looked like on your screen.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. Do you think that portable 3D scanning could open new doorways for archaeological research? Can you think of any ways that something like Project Tango can contribute to archaeology? Let us know in the comments here or on our Facebook page.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for the good article, arch-admin. Can confirm this is happening. My company spent the summer building AR applications with the Project Tango dev kit at an archaeological site in Sicily. Project Tango’s a great platform to work with, and the SDK has come a long way since March.

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