Intel has quietly snuffed out its Project Tango smartphone as it rethinks augmented reality

RealSense developers are now cut from testing Google's Project Tango 3D apps on devices

RealSense smartphone

CEO Brian Krzanich shows Intel's RealSense technology in a prototype smartphone at IDF in San Francisco Aug. 18, 2015

Credit: Intel

Intel's RealSense 3D camera technology was the star of last year's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. Along with robots and drones that used RealSense to "see" the world around them, CEO Brian Krzanich showed the first prototype smartphone to incorporate the technology.

The phone went on sale in January for US$399, along with a software kit that allowed developers to built augmented reality applications using RealSense and Google's Project Tango platform. It put Intel on the front edge of mobile AR, a technology that's now having its breakout moment thanks to Pokémon Go.

The RealSense smartphone was short lived, however. Intel has quietly stopped selling the device, in line with its decision to cut development of its Atom processors and largely give up on the smartphone market. RealSense is alive and well in other devices, but Intel's ambitions to tackle mobile AR and VR will take other forms.

The phone was never expected to go on sale to the general public; it was a reference device intended to help developers and device makers find new uses for 3D cameras in handsets.

But it could have helped Intel play a bigger role in the emerging market for augmented and virtual reality devices.

It's also something of a setback for Google, since developers have one less hardware platform on which to test and build Project Tango applications. Google offers a tablet development kit for $512, but no smartphone.

Lenovo's Phab 2 Pro, the first commercial Project Tango smartphone, is due to go on sale later this year for $499. The phablet has a 6.4-inch screen, and its sensors allow it to measure short distances and navigate indoors. It will also play 3D games in which virtual images are overlaid on the real world.

Intel's developer phone had a 2560x1440 resolution screen, but the real draw was the RealSense ZR300 system. A bit like Microsoft's Kinect, it can map its surroundings in 3D, detect hand gestures and recognize objects using its camera and sensors.

RealSense is still offered in many other products, and it's at the center of Intel's strategy to make PCs and other devices more interactive using computer vision.

Intel will lay out its current VR and AR strategy at this year's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco next month. While it's scaled back its development of Atom chips, it will describe plans for a pair of augmented-reality smart glasses for remote collaboration, based on another low-power chipset.

Intel's best assets for VR and AR today are the powerful PC processors needed to drive headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Intel doesn't provide the graphics to drive those headsets, however, which come from Nvidia and AMD.

Intel also isn't part of Google's new DayDream project, a VR platform that includes hardware and software and will be built on top of Android N.HP has talked about bringing VR to Chromebooks, however, most of which do run on Intel chips.