"Mobile devices today assume that the physical world ends at the boundaries of the screen," said ATAP’s technical program leader Johnny Leem, who previously worked on Microsoft's Kinect platform.
"Our goal is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion."
Google said the phone's sensors can collect over a quarter of a million 3D measurements a second and as it updates its position and orientation in real-time it synthesizes the information into a single 3D model, which cah then be used with the phone's on-screen graphics, or loaded into a database for later use.
The device is aimed firmly at developers houses development APIs that send position, orientation and depth data to standard Android apps, and Google said it envisions Project Tango having applications in gaming, aiding visually-impaired people, maps and navigation and other everyday scenarios.
"What if you never found yourself lost in a new building again?" ATAP said. "What if directions to a new location didn’t stop at the street address? Imagine playing hide-and-seek in your house with your favorite game character. Imagine competing against a friend for control over physical space with your own miniature army."
"The goal of Project Tango is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion."
Not much is known about the phone itself but Google did drop some specs including a 4MP camera, 2X computer vision processors, integrated depth sensing and a motion tracking camera.
Only 200 prototype dev kits exist, and Google hopes to get them out the door by 14 March.
The company is searching for professional developers to take a crack at "creating more than a touchscreen app."
Some of the dev sets will be used specifically for indoor navigation/mapping, single and multiplayer games that use physical space and new algorithms for processing sensor data, while Google also explained there are also a number set aside for stuff "we haven't thought of yet".
Project Tango is firmly planted in the "early stages", and Google said it is focusing on "exploration of what might be possible in a mobile platform," meaning device is probably years away from being on the shelves.
Have a look at ATAP's video explaining Project Tango below.