- While Google's approach may be different, it's far from being the first company to add motion controls to smartphones . Companies like LG and Samsung have done so in the past, but neither of these firms have succeeded in making motion-detection feel truly useful.
- Whether or not Google's motion-sensing features will actually provide value to the user experience remains to be seen. But it could be laying the breadcrumbs for a future in which our phones become more intelligent about their surroundings.
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At first blush, Google's new Pixel 4 may look and feel a lot like other smartphones.
It has many of the features that have become the norm for today's mobile devices, such as a large, vibrant screen and an advanced camera system made up of more than one lens.
But just above the display there's a critical component not found on any other phone: a compact radar system known as Soli, which enables the Pixel 4 to understand when you're nearby and respond to touchless gestures. Google's Advanced Technology & Projects group has been refining the technology for five years, making it small enough and powerful enough to work in a device like the Pixel 4.
Other than the Pixel 4's improved camera, the phone's new Soli-powered Motion Sense features were the centerpiece of the search giant's presentation about its new smartphone on Tuesday. With Google's Soli technology, you'll be able to skip songs on apps like Spotify and YouTube and snooze alarms just by waving your hand. Two new apps "Pokmon Wave Hello" and "Headed South" also take advantage of the tech, making it possible to interact with or control game characters with a wave.
And while Google's approach may be unusual, it's far from being the first company to add motion controls to smartphones. Companies like LG and Samsung have done so in the past, but neither of these firms have been successful.
Rival smartphone makers have failed to find a way to make motion detection useful
Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider
While the Pixel 4's radar technology may be impressive from an engineering and design standpoint, its unclear how valuable consumers will find the new Motion Sense features.
The Pixel 4 may be the only phone with a radar sensor, but it's certainly not the first mobile device to support touchless gestures. Samsung and LG have previously implemented features in their mobile devices that make it possible to control a smartphone without physically touching it.
Take LG's G8 ThinQ as an example. That phone has a front-facing 3D sensor that can scan your hand and detect motion, which it uses to power a feature LG calls Air Motion. Through Air Motion, you can perform tasks like launching apps or turning up the volume by holding your hand above the phone and performing gestures.
Back in 2013, Samsung also introduced a similar feature on the Galaxy S4 that allowed you to skip songs, swipe through pictures in your photo gallery, or answer a call by waving your hand above the display.
Neither of those features, however, appeared to be a hit. Reviewers criticized LG's Air Motion for being gimmicky , useless , or difficult to use . While critics weren't quite as harsh on Samsung's gesture technology in 2013, the reaction to the Galaxy S4's motion recognition features was lukewarm at best. Suffice it to say that the ability to manipulate your phone without touching it was not a selling point for either device. With the Pixel 4, Google will have to prove that its Soli technology will be different.
But Motion Sense could be laying the groundwork for bigger advancements in the future
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images
Of course, the radar technology in Google's new smartphone can do a lot more than just respond to your hand movements. Perhaps the most compelling use for Soli is its ability to sense when you're nearby, which helps it unlock the phone more quickly as you're reaching for it and intelligently turn off the display when you're away.
Such functionality could be hugely important for Google as it carries out its vision for mobile devices down the line.
Google's Mario Queiroz, who previously served as the vice president for the Pixel business before moving to a new position in the office of CEO Sundar Pichai, previously told Business Insider that bringing more intelligence to your smartphone will be critical for premium smartphones future.
"We're really moving to a world of ambient computing," Queiroz said to Business Insider several months ago ahead of the Pixel 3a's launch. "I really think that this transition to ambient computing, where your smartphone becomes even more intelligent about what's going on around you and even more helpful to you based on that information, is one of the [industry] trends."
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