Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) is always on the lookout for new ways to gather data, and now it wants to turn your smartphone into a 3D imaging device (with a host of other applications, of course). Project Tango first became public a couple of months ago, but Google is preparing to build around 4,000 prototypes for developers and early adopters, reports Lorraine Luk for MarketWatch.

google Project Tango

Project Tango uses multiple cameras, infrared sensors to build a picture of the world

The 7-inch tablet would have a pair of cameras (you need more than one to judge depth) and infrared sensors to capture data and all the necessary software to turn that into a 3D model of the surrounding that another app could use to give directions, measure a house for new furniture, or play immersive augmented reality games.

Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) has also said that the technology could be used to help those with limited vision navigate by scanning the environment and then telling them what is nearby, and no doubt it will enable context-specific advertising at some point (don’t expect Google to stress this part).

Project Tango release following Google Glass pattern

Releasing a small number of prototypes to developers follows the Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Glass development model, which stands in stark contrast to Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s preference for absolute secrecy (if not outright misinformation) until they are ready for a major launch and marketing blitz. From a marketing perspective, it’s hard to argue that one is strictly better than the other. Apple has proven itself to be adept at generating buzz, but releasing Google Glass in waves has given people time to adapt (and for the backlash to dissipate somewhat) as they get used to seeing wearable tech. But from a developmental perspective it means that only a few thousand people will be subjected to any remaining glitches, and even they are likely to see themselves as beta testers. Apple has to have better internal quality controls (as the iOS 6 Maps mishap proved).

Like Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Glass, Project Tango is a powerful technology in search of a killer app. Slight improvements over smartphone cameras are fine, but Google is hoping that one of these 4000 prototypes will fall into the hands of someone with a great idea that will make the device a must-have.