Google’s Project Tango is amazing, but it’s taking its sweet time making it to market. This crazy alien head of a camera could change all that. Qualcomm and Google just teamed up to shrink it down to a size suitable for your pocket.

You’re looking at the Project Tango Smartphone Development Platform, coming later this summer. It’s not the first time Google’s crammed sensors into a handset—the original Tango was a phone—but this one makes more sense. For one thing, it’s a reference design that actual phonemakers can copy if they’d like to create Tango products. For another, it’s got an important new sensor.

The secret sauce is a new time-of-flight camera that lets the Tango measure depth without taking up nearly as much space on the back of the phone. Previously, a Project Tango team member tells me, the devices used a “structured light” approach. Much like the original Microsoft Kinect, an infrared projector would fire out a pattern, which a separate camera would need to read—and that separate camera would need to be a ways away to give the system much accuracy.

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Tablet versus phone—note how far apart the cameras are

On this version, a time-of-flight camera can calculate depth all by itself, just by measuring how long it takes for light to shoot out, hit an object, and come back. Which means it can fit in a much smaller space, which in turn makes things way simpler for space-constrained phone designers.

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The time-of-flight camera in action

Otherwise, it’s pretty much the super-high-end Qualcomm smartphone reference design that handset designers are already familiar with: a Snapdragon 810 processor, a huge 6.1-inch 2560 x 1600 screen, and a whole raft of other specs.

So when can the rest of us get our hands on Project Tango? Hard to say... but it definitely seems like there’s a little more momentum now. Google just announced a developer contest that’ll pay out $95,000 in prizes, which admittedly isn’t a lot, but it’s a start. More good news: There are a whole bunch of awesome Tango demos on tap here at I/O.

For instance, I ran around with a real Nerf gun firing at robot baddies I could only see through the Tango’s screen. (Google teamed up with Hasbro to 3D-print a Project Tango mount.)

In another demo, I confronted a (sadly featherless) dinosaur after collecting three of its bones and placing them on a contraption which opened a portal back to the Mesozoic era. Naturally!

It’s fun! It’s cool! It’s still baby steps... but it’s a few baby steps closer to actually being real.


Contact the author at sean.hollister@gizmodo.com.