Asus launched the ZenFone AR in the United States on Thursday. Built to be a kind of dream smartphone for technology enthusiasts, the ZenFone AR features high specifications, including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 mobile processor.
It’s also currently one of only two devices in the world that supports the Google Tango augmented reality technology (the other being the Lenovo Phab 2), and it’s the only smartphone that has both Tango and Daydream—Google’s mobile virtual reality platform. The phone is available exclusively through Verizon and is priced at $648 for the 128 GB model.
Verizon and Asus partnered to host a pre-launch event in New York City on Wednesday to showcase the ZenFone AR and its capabilities. There, attendees could get their hands on the cutting-edge phone and try out a range of applications including: AR and VR games, the BMW i Visualizer app, which lets users project and customize life-sized virtual cars into real-world spaces like garages or driveways, the Google Expeditions application, which lets educators illustrate concepts like volcanoes, tornadoes and tsunamis using animated 3D models that viewers can step around, a Spider-Man AR photo booth and Wayfair’s 3D shopping app, which uses AR to let users place virtual furniture pieces in their homes and offices to see how they look.
Randall Grilli, director of media relations for Asus, sat down with AListDaily at the showcase event to discuss the ZenFone AR, which he describes as a top-of-the line smartphone that’s been purpose built for AR and VR.
“Most of the ZenFones are purpose built,” said Grilli, pointing to his own ZenFone 3 Zoom and explaining how it was created as a high-end camera phone. “I think that you’ll find that we purpose built a lot of our products. With the ZenFones in particular, we make phones for specific purposes or people. This (ZenFone AR) is purpose built for AR and VR, so you’ll buy it based on that.”
So, what audience does the world’s first AR and VR phone address, specifically?
“AR is pretty new, but there are a lot of different functions for it,” said Grilli. “So, it could be for a lot of different audiences, depending on what you’re looking for. For example, Google Expeditions is an education-based platform. We’re doing a lot with learning with it, and Tango is a learning tool—it learns the world around you and communicates it back—so applications can be varied. You’ll probably see a mix of education, mobile shopping and entertainment.”
Grilli also stated the early technology adopters were likely to be the target audience for the ZenFone AR, given the phone’s high-end specifications. Asus partnered with Google to develop some of the core Tango applications, particularly Expeditions, and it has worked closely with Qualcomm to ensure those apps run smoothly on the device.
Compared to the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, which released last fall, Grilli said, “The [Tango] platform is more mature, and the ZenFone AR has a much better spec, given that the Lenovo phone is a year old. Both run Tango, but this has a totally different set of sensors and cameras that are more sophisticated than what you’ll find on the Lenovo Phab 2.”
Discussing whether it was important for Asus to have the first fully capable AR/VR phone on the market, Grilli said, “It’s great to be first, but I don’t know if it’s important. It’s great that we have all these technologies that we’re able to combine in a portable way. You don’t have to have a giant computing system to have VR and AR, and that’s something that you’ll see that’s continuous throughout our product line.
“The ZenFone 3 Zoom is tiny with a thin form factor and lasts 42 days on standby. So, I think you’ll find that consistently throughout a lot of our products—making technology more accessible to more people in a small form factor is probably the most important aspect.”
For many consumers, one of the first things that comes to mind when hearing about mobile AR is Pokémon GO, the location-based mobile game that caught fire with mobile players last summer. However, the game ran on straightforward smartphones, so why should they be interested in Tango?
“Pokémon GO isn’t true AR in the strictest sense,” Grilli replied. “With Tango, you have three qualifying factors—motion tracking, the infrared sensor (for distance tracking) and the dual camera. Without those three combined, you’re not going to have that true experience. What you’re getting with Pokémon GO is an overlay on a map. But if you look at something like Expeditions, you’re getting true-to-life mapping and data points. It’s fixed on an object found in the real world, so it’s much more sophisticated technology.”
Grilli explained how AR in general might be more appealing to consumers than a single game, even one as big as Pokémon GO. “Not everyone likes to game, but everyone is into shopping,” he said. “So, you’re going to see richer shopping experiences come, which will be more interesting to consumers. We have different verticals here, including car-and-furniture shopping and education—and there are games too, of course, because they’re popular. We’re seeing more developers take advantage of the AR platform, and [someday] it will be as basic as software in the future—there will be a different flavor for everyone.”
All these applications are why the ZenFone AR’s catchphrase is, “Go beyond reality.” According to Grilli, the biggest incentive for brands to start taking advantage of AR comes from how the technology eliminates barriers.
“One of the things that makes Amazon so successful is that you can point, click and order online,” said Grilli. “But now we can take it a step further by seeing how things look in your house, trying clothes on for yourself, or creating a custom spec car and ordering it direct. These are all experiences that are moving closer to true-to-life, but from the comfort of wherever you are—your home, office or on-the-go.”
Grilli believes that experiencing AR and VR first-hand, in addition to growing the experiences to provide “more flavors for more people,” will be the keys to growing consumer adoption for the technologies. That is why Asus and Verizon partnered to host the showcase event. But ultimately, it all comes down to the in-store experience.
“We worked with Verizon closely on in-store training,” said Grilli. “It’s a new technology, so we want consumers to know about the experiences, and one of the ways to do that is in the stores. Representatives will be trained to show the different varieties of Tango AR apps you can use.”