Introduction to TensorFlow Mobile

TensorFlow was designed from the ground up to be a good deep learning solution for mobile platforms like Android and iOS. This mobile guide should help you understand how machine learning can work on mobile platforms and how to integrate TensorFlow into your mobile apps effectively and efficiently.

About this Guide

This guide is aimed at developers who have a TensorFlow model that’s successfully working in a desktop environment, who want to integrate it into a mobile application, and cannot use TensorFlow Lite. Here are the main challenges you’ll face during that process:

  • Understanding how to use Tensorflow for mobile.
  • Building TensorFlow for your platform.
  • Integrating the TensorFlow library into your application.
  • Preparing your model file for mobile deployment.
  • Optimizing for latency, RAM usage, model file size, and binary size.

Common use cases for mobile machine learning

Why run TensorFlow on mobile?

Traditionally, deep learning has been associated with data centers and giant clusters of high-powered GPU machines. However, it can be very expensive and time-consuming to send all of the data a device has access to across a network connection. Running on mobile makes it possible to deliver very interactive applications in a way that’s not possible when you have to wait for a network round trip.

Here are some common use cases for on-device deep learning:

Speech Recognition

There are a lot of interesting applications that can be built with a speech-driven interface, and many of these require on-device processing. Most of the time a user isn’t giving commands, and so streaming audio continuously to a remote server would be a waste of bandwidth, since it would mostly be silence or background noises. To solve this problem it’s common to have a small neural network running on-device listening out for a particular keyword. Once that keyword has been spotted, the rest of the conversation can be transmitted over to the server for further processing if more computing power is needed.

Image Recognition

It can be very useful for a mobile app to be able to make sense of a camera image. If your users are taking photos, recognizing what’s in them can help your camera apps apply appropriate filters, or label the photos so they’re easily findable. It’s important for embedded applications too, since you can use image sensors to detect all sorts of interesting conditions, whether it’s spotting endangered animals in the wild or reporting how late your train is running.

TensorFlow comes with several examples of recognizing the types of objects inside images along with a variety of different pre-trained models, and they can all be run on mobile devices. You can try out our Tensorflow for Poets and Tensorflow for Poets 2: Optimize for Mobile codelabs to see how to take a pretrained model and run some very fast and lightweight training to teach it to recognize specific objects, and then optimize it to run on mobile.

Object Localization

Sometimes it’s important to know where objects are in an image as well as what they are. There are lots of augmented reality use cases that could benefit a mobile app, such as guiding users to the right component when offering them help fixing their wireless network or providing informative overlays on top of landscape features. Embedded applications often need to count objects that are passing by them, whether it’s pests in a field of crops, or people, cars and bikes going past a street lamp.

TensorFlow offers a pretrained model for drawing bounding boxes around people detected in images, together with tracking code to follow them over time. The tracking is especially important for applications where you’re trying to count how many objects are present over time, since it gives you a good idea when a new object enters or leaves the scene. We have some sample code for this available for Android on Github, and also a more general object detection model available as well.

Gesture Recognition

It can be useful to be able to control applications with hand or other gestures, either recognized from images or through analyzing accelerometer sensor data. Creating those models is beyond the scope of this guide, but TensorFlow is an effective way of deploying them.

Optical Character Recognition

Google Translate’s live camera view is a great example of how effective interactive on-device detection of text can be.

There are multiple steps involved in recognizing text in images. You first have to identify the areas where the text is present, which is a variation on the object localization problem, and can be solved with similar techniques. Once you have an area of text, you then need to interpret it as letters, and then use a language model to help guess what words they represent. The simplest way to estimate what letters are present is to segment the line of text into individual letters, and then apply a simple neural network to the bounding box of each. You can get good results with the kind of models used for MNIST, which you can find in TensorFlow’s tutorials, though you may want a higher-resolution input. A more advanced alternative is to use an LSTM model to process a whole line of text at once, with the model itself handling the segmentation into different characters.


Translating from one language to another quickly and accurately, even if you don’t have a network connection, is an important use case. Deep networks are very effective at this sort of task, and you can find descriptions of a lot of different models in the literature. Often these are sequence-to-sequence recurrent models where you’re able to run a single graph to do the whole translation, without needing to run separate parsing stages.

Text Classification

If you want to suggest relevant prompts to users based on what they’re typing or reading, it can be very useful to understand the meaning of the text. This is where text classification comes in. Text classification is an umbrella term that covers everything from sentiment analysis to topic discovery. You’re likely to have your own categories or labels that you want to apply, so the best place to start is with an example like Skip-Thoughts, and then train on your own examples.

Voice Synthesis

A synthesized voice can be a great way of giving users feedback or aiding accessibility, and recent advances such as WaveNet show that deep learning can offer very natural-sounding speech.

Mobile machine learning and the cloud

These examples of use cases give an idea of how on-device networks can complement cloud services. Cloud has a great deal of computing power in a controlled environment, but running on devices can offer higher interactivity. In situations where the cloud is unavailable, or your cloud capacity is limited, you can provide an offline experience, or reduce cloud workload by processing easy cases on device.

Doing on-device computation can also signal when it's time to switch to working on the cloud. A good example of this is hotword detection in speech. Since devices are able to constantly listen out for the keywords, this then triggers a lot of traffic to cloud-based speech recognition once one is recognised. Without the on-device component, the whole application wouldn’t be feasible, and this pattern exists across several other applications as well. Recognizing that some sensor input is interesting enough for further processing makes a lot of interesting products possible.

What hardware and software should you have?

TensorFlow runs on Ubuntu Linux, Windows 10, and OS X. For a list of all supported operating systems and instructions to install TensorFlow, see Installing Tensorflow.

Note that some of the sample code we provide for mobile TensorFlow requires you to compile TensorFlow from source, so you’ll need more than just pip install to work through all the sample code.

To try out the mobile examples, you’ll need a device set up for development, using either Android Studio, or XCode if you're developing for iOS.

What should you do before you get started?

Before thinking about how to get your solution on mobile:

  1. Determine whether your problem is solvable by mobile machine learning
  2. Create a labelled dataset to define your problem
  3. Pick an effective model for the problem

We'll discuss these in more detail below.

Is your problem solvable by mobile machine learning?

Once you have an idea of the problem you want to solve, you need to make a plan of how to build your solution. The most important first step is making sure that your problem is actually solvable, and the best way to do that is to mock it up using humans in the loop.

For example, if you want to drive a robot toy car using voice commands, try recording some audio from the device and listen back to it to see if you can make sense of what’s being said. Often you’ll find there are problems in the capture process, such as the motor drowning out speech or not being able to hear at a distance, and you should tackle these problems before investing in the modeling process.

Another example would be giving photos taken from your app to people see if they can classify what’s in them, in the way you’re looking for. If they can’t do that (for example, trying to estimate calories in food from photos may be impossible because all white soups look the same), then you’ll need to redesign your experience to cope with that. A good rule of thumb is that if a human can’t handle the task then it will be difficult to train a computer to do better.

Create a labelled dataset

After you’ve solved any fundamental issues with your use case, you need to create a labeled dataset to define what problem you’re trying to solve. This step is extremely important, moreso than picking which model to use. You want it to be as representative as possible of your actual use case, since the model will only be effective at the task you teach it. It’s also worth investing in tools to make labeling the data as efficient and accurate as possible. For example, if you’re able to switch from having to click a button on a web interface to simple keyboard shortcuts, you may be able to speed up the generation process a lot. You should also start by doing the initial labeling yourself, so you can learn about the difficulties and likely errors, and possibly change your labeling or data capture process to avoid them. Once you and your team are able to consistently label examples (that is once you generally agree on the same labels for most examples), you can then try and capture your knowledge in a manual and teach external raters how to run the same process.

Pick an effective model

The next step is to pick an effective model to use. You might be able to avoid training a model from scratch if someone else has already implemented a model similar to what you need; we have a repository of models implemented in TensorFlow on Github that you can look through. Lean towards the simplest model you can find, and try to get started as soon as you have even a small amount of labelled data, since you’ll get the best results when you’re able to iterate quickly. The shorter the time it takes to try training a model and running it in s real application, the better overall results you’ll see. It’s common for an algorithm to get great training accuracy numbers but then fail to be useful within a real application because there’s a mismatch between the dataset and real usage. Prototype end-to-end usage as soon as possible to create a consistent user experience.

Next Steps

We suggest you get started by building one of our demos for Android or iOS.