We’ve recently been flooded with more Pixel 4 leaks; milled aluminum blanks for case makers, hands-on with said aluminum blanks, and finally Google playing king of the hill and just showing us the back of the phone. But the biggest rumor is also the most mysterious — Google is including a Soli chip in the upcoming Pixels. While part of the internet thinks it’s built to use the mysterious sensor hole in the giant camera bump we see in the renders and another part of it thinks we’ll be using it for gesture navigation, a bigger part has no idea what Google might be doing with it or doesn’t even know exactly what it is. You might be part of all three groups even!
Is this just another rumor that comes with the hype train surrounding the most anticipated and divisive phone that comes out every year or is Soli something that could actually make a phone better? Let’s talk about it.
What is Project Soli?
Project Soli is a very cool idea that comes from the ATAP (Advanced Technology And Projects) team’s Ivan Poupyrev. It’s a small chip that can sense very fine details and movement using radio waves to determine range, angle, and velocity. It’s essentially Radar built into a tiny low-power chip. Google first showed us Soli at Google I/O 2015, and a year later at the 2016 conference, we saw an amazing demo using Soli to navigate our way through a smartwatch using natural hand and finger gestures.
As seen in the video above, Soli allows you to perform the same motions you would use if you were pushing a button, or turning a knob, or wiping up a spill on the table and translates them into useful interactions. And since Soli’s Doppler-style data analysis can detect movement in the sub-millimeter range, pushing virtual buttons and turning virtual knobs can provide finer control much than actually using their physical counterparts.
Soli and the Pixel 4
Our friends at 9to5Google got a juicy rumor that the Pixel 4 would include a Soli sensor. To be fair, a lot of times rumors like this don’t actually pan out but that’s no reflection on the messenger; the crew at 9to5 is pretty sure they trust the information and wanted to share it, which is the right call. We have done the same. But in this case, some secondary news cements the rumor.
XDA-Developers has been tearing apart the Android Q beta versions and was keeping track of what Google calls an Aware sensor. Deeply embedded inside the OS, but unusable without the actual sensor, are things like air gestures for media controls. When you put these two bits of information together, it’s almost a certainty that Google will include a Soli sensor in the Pixel 4.
Does this make the Pixel 4 better?
Air gestures have not been a thing that everyone loves, no matter how hard companies have tried to make it happen. On Android, we first saw them on the Galaxy S4, and most recently LG has included them on the G8. And guess what? In both cases, they were thought of as gimmicky and unnecessary.
Using your hand waving through the air can be a useful way to do some things. But most of those things are not in your hands like your phone is. Controlling a smart speaker from the couch, for example, is an implementation that I think people would find useful. Wiping your hand from side to side while the other hand holds your phone to change tracks is not. When I first saw the Soli demo at Google I/O my mind went to sign language — Soli could bring “voice” actions to people who are unable to hear and speak. I certainly didn’t think of tiny finger gestures to change the volume on the phone in my hands.
Please don’t use the words “Minority Report”.
But Soli and the Aware sensor don’t have to be constrained to media controls or even air gesture navigation. On episode 430 of the AC Podcast Russell Holly said he would love to see Soli implemented as an authentication method. Beyond my ideas of assistive tech or Russell’s ideas of security, there are plenty of things Google could try to improve using an “Aware” sensor. If the camp that thinks it’s inside the huge camera bump is right, it could make shooting video much better by tracking movement, for example.
An Aware sensor could be useful for assistive tech as well as media controls.
One thing I hope Google has planned for Soli is to make AR more fun and useful. Imagine seeing augmented reality transferred from your phone’s screen to a television or monitor and being able to interact with it Kinect style through a sensor on your phone. Or supplanting actual reality with a virtual version and tracking precise movements to make it a lot more awesome. Or imagine the ideas someone smarter than me could think up.
There are a lot of things that could be done and we all will have a different opinion here, but I think we all agree that air controls for the media player aren’t going to make the Pixel 4 a must-buy for late 2019. I’d love to hear what you think as well as what you would love to see Google do with Soli in the Pixel 4 in the comments.