Google wants to build a new kind of smartphone—one that can see your environment just like you can, or help blind customers navigate the visible world. This isn’t a new version of Android, at least not yet; it’s a new experimental beast entirely. Google calls it “Project Tango.”

“The goal of Project Tango is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion,” Johnny Lee, who leads Google’s Project Tango team, said in a video on the project site.

Here are five things you need to know about Project Tango:

1. Google's Project Tango prototype is a 5-inch smartphone. Project Tango aims to merge the physical and digital worlds. Humans use visual cues to interact with their environments, Google is building a prototype smartphone that can do pretty much the same thing.

“Our current prototype is a 5” phone containing customized hardware and software designed to track the full 3D motion of the device, while simultaneously creating a map of the environment,” Lee said. “These sensors allow the phone to make over a quarter million 3D measurements every second, updating it’s position and orientation in real-time, combining that data into a single 3D model of the space around you.”

2. Project Tango isn't Android, but it runs on it. Google’s Project Tango prototype runs on Android and offers development APIs to help Android apps built on Java, C/C++ and the Unity Game Engine to learn data about the phone’s position, orientation and depth. We reached out to Google to learn more about the prototype’s specs, especially its processors, and we’ll update this story as soon as we learn more.

3. Project Tango could revolutionize navigation and augmented reality apps. A phone that can create 3D models of its immediate environment could have a wide range of applications. For instance, Google could provide more granular directions for navigating indoor spaces like buildings or malls (although the company has already started to do that without 3D phones).

It could also spur along the development of “augmented reality” apps that overlay digital information or graphics atop photos and live video of the real world. Augmented reality could also be used to include real-world objects in digital games.

4. Project Tango dev kits are limited. Google is currently offering 200 prototype kits to developers, but due to "FCC restrictions," developers who want an early glimpse at Project Tango must work for an incorporated institution or entity. (It's not clear why.) You can apply for one by filling out this form.

But not all dev kits are built the same. According to Google, some of the devices are optimized for projects in indoor mapping,  processing sensor data, single and multiplayer games, and the company also plans to "set aside units for applications we haven’t thought of yet.” Google expects to distribute all its available units by March 14.

5. Google has 16 Project Tango partners and counting. These include Movidius, a Silicon Valley startup dedicated to developing chips that can interpret data from sensors and cameras; Bosch; OmniVision and the Open Source Robotics Foundation.

Images courtesy of Google