Google has an indoor positioning tech in the works, called VPS

Google has announced it’s working on a service to offer detailed indoor location positioning using its Tango 3D sensing computer vision tech.

“One thing we’ve seen clearly is that AR is most powerful when it’s tightly coupled to the real world, and the more precisely the better,” said Clay Bavor, speaking at Google’s I/O conference today. “That’s why we’ve been working with the Google Maps team on a service that can give devices access to very precise location information indoors.”

Bavor described the feature as “kind of like GPS” but instead of talking to satellites — which isn’t necessarily viable given indoor reception issues — the cameras on a Tango device triangulate position based on “distinct visual features in the environment”.

“We think it’s going to be incredibly useful in a whole bunch of places,” he said.

Google’s name for the tech is “visual positioning service” — or VPS.

Bavor gave the example of a large DIY store where a shopper is trying to find a particular item. “Imagine in the future your phone could just take you to that exact screwdriver and point it out to you on the shelf,” he said.

He did not give a specific timeframe for a launch — saying only that the tech is “working today”.

He also showed a video demo of the system which uses a series of visual feature points to navigate indoors, and determines where it is by comparing new points with previously observed ones so “the phone can figure out exactly where it is in space — down to a few centimeters”.

It’s unclear how well it would fair in interior environments without too many distinct visual features to latch on to, however.

“GPS can get you to the door. And then VPS can get you to the exact item that you’re looking for,” he added.

The demo drew a round of applause from the I/O crowd.

Google released a dev kit for its Tango tech back in 2015, and the first consumer device was launched last year (made by Lenovo). A second gen Tango device is due to launch this summer, noted Bavor, flagging up how devices are getting smaller. “You can imagine far more devices having this capability in the future,” he added.

He also hinted at another potential future use-case for the location positioning tech — assisting people with visual impairment.

“Further out, imagine what this technology could mean to people with impaired vision. VPS in an audio-based interface could transform how they make their way through the world.”

VPS will be “critical” for camera-based interfaces, he added — noting that it will be a core component of Google Lens, the intelligent camera tech Google also announced today.