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Robots aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are getting shiny new smartphones with 3D imaging capabilities, courtesy of Google’s Project Tango hardware, reports Reuters.

Project Tango refers to the new line of smartphone and tablets Google is pushing that are more aware of surrounding areas and can capture a 3D image of an object or scene with a special camera. At first glance, this might not seem that big of a deal, but as demonstrated at Google I/O, Project Tango hardware can produce some pretty cool applications.

Related: This app can measure an entire room — and its contents — by taking a picture with Google Tango hardware (exclusive)

NASA’s robots — called Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES for short — will use the Tango smartphones as a new set of eyes and “hands” to perform tasks outside the space station that astronauts usually handle. The phones are scheduled to blast off via a space cargo ship July 11.

Engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center wanted to find ways to make the SPHERES robots more useful, which is what led to them to use the Tango phones. (Apparently, when the robots first arrived in 2006, they weren’t really capable of doing more than performing precise movements.)

“We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors,” SPHERES project manager Chris Provencher told Reuters. “As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands. Let’s just use smartphones.”

With even NASA understanding the capabilities of Google’s 3D imaging hardware, it makes me really curious to see what developers come up with over the next year—once more of these Tango-enabled smartphones and tablets become available.

Google announced at I/O that it’s working with LG to launch a consumer version of Tango next year.


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