Google’s Johnny Chung Lee uses a Project Tango tablet.

Eric Johnson

Google’s Johnny Chung Lee uses a Project Tango tablet.

Before giving a speech on Tuesday, Johnny Chung Lee’s pre-talk prep included a quick round of basketball and building a house in Minecraft.

He wasn’t goofing around. As the project lead at Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, also known as ATAP, Lee was testing a live demo of Project Tango, an initiative that aims to give mobile devices a better, more human-like visual sense of the world.

“Sitting in this room, you understand its size and scale,” Lee told the audience at Nvidia’s GPU Technology Conference. “That sense of spatial perception is something we take for granted, but a large portion of our brain is dedicated to the visual cortex.”

Tango’s current hardware, a prototype Android tablet made for developers, features three rear-facing cameras. Together, they let the tablet scan its environment and track its own motion through 3-D space. By overlaying virtual experiences on top of that data, one could — for example — shoot non-tangible balls into a digital reconstruction of a real basket.

Or, build a house in Minecraft, and then move the tablet to explore the house:

Officially, Project Tango’s building demo is a “Minecraft homage,” Lee told Re/code, and it currently doesn’t display a full model of one’s surroundings, meaning you have to point the Tango tablet at the floor to build. But the idea is that the positional tracking features would let consumers make something in virtual space, move away in the real world, but then come back to find it where they left it.

“You’ll be laying out castles on your kitchen table,” he said. “With the re-localization engine turned on, it will recognize, ‘Oh, I’m in this part of the kitchen again’ and position the content correctly.”

He also proposed that multiplayer games would be a good fit for the technology. For example, a game could span multiple rooms, and players could see each others’ exact locations, in the style of a first-person shooter radar, on their screens.

“Just like you and I are sharing the same room, looking at each other, the devices would as well,” Lee said.

To get Tango into peoples’ hands, Google plans to partner with OEMs from the Android world. Last year at the company’s I/O conference, Lee announced a consumer-oriented tablet with the necessary cameras to be made with LG. He declined to provide an update on those plans.

Also in testing: A virtual reality-ish wearable version of the Tango tablet that splits its screen into two images, one for each eye. The tablet’s built-in cameras would remove the need for an external camera — the solution favored by Oculus, Sony and HTC/Valve — to track the user’s movement.

“You’d still have to worry about bumping into stuff,” Lee said.

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