This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
I mean smartphone design. And it's always been that way: the Google Nexus was always seen as a phone for the die-hard Android fans, but never a commercial success by any means. Then, we had three years of the Google Pixel series, which showed that Google can also make one of the best cameras around, while still somehow selling just fractions of what the top phone makers sell. Finally, now again, the latest and boldest new Pixel 4 is coming up and it shapes up to be another device made to showcase technological wizardry, albeit without explaining how its signature innovative features will actually benefit real people. Needless to say, this approach can only do one thing: win over the nerds, the 1%, yet miss the point completely when it comes to commercial success.
The reason for this lies in another moonshot that Google has recently confirmed it's taking with the Pixel 4: a radical new technology known as "Project Soli". Project Soli implements a real radar at the front of the phone, next to the selfie camera (that is why the bezel at the top of the Pixel 4 is so huge!).
That radar system reads your gestures with previously unmatched precision and allows you to control your phone without ever touching the screen. It's an extremely impressive engineering effort that deserves all the praise and if you want a primer on how it works, we have it explained in great detail here: it reads gestures with an incredible accuracy and is even able to tell between different materials standing next to it.
But how does it improve the actual smartphone experience? And does it achieve that at all?
Google provides one solitary example in a teaser video meant to stir excitement months ahead of the Pixel launch. It shows that the phone has some form of face recognition and it shows one single gesture — a swipe to the side — that allows you to switch to the next song in your music player. Hm... didn't we have this in 2013 when Samsung launched the now positively ancient Galaxy S4 with its Air Gestures, the gimmicky feature that no one cared to use at all? And didn't we have the same functionality in the LG G8 ThinQ, a relatively affordable Snapdragon 855 phone that was criticized exactly for its focus on gimmicky gestures? Why is now different?
There is one difference: the new Project Soli in the Google Pixel 4 is different when it comes to the technology. It's way more advanced, more precise, more everything, but when it comes to actually providing something actually useful to consumers, well, it basically does the same things that no one wanted to do with gestures before...
So why should we care about it?
Google has not answered this question yet. Maybe it will surprise us with a radical new gesture navigation or something else that we don't expect.
But so far, the teaser video that is supposed to stir excitement only shows a functionality that we have seen time and time throughout the years, and that has been discarded by mostas gimmicky. Google also has to fight a general consensus around gesture navigation that has built up from the past and that consensus is that they have been quite useless. After all, unless your hands are wet or you are driving, it's infinitely easier to just tap a button rather than fiddle with gestures! Imagine using the phone in real life: you hold it in your hand, just tap to quickly change a song, or turn up the volume with a single hand, quick and easy. Why would you ever want to do the extra effort of holding the phone with one hand, trying the gestures with the other, unsure if they will work, why go through that hassle? Why? As an innovator, I feel that Google should answer that question sooner rather than later.
Finally, Project Soli might be the most impressive and innovative technological advancement of the year, but unless Google convinces us about its practical use, unless Google takes the effort to sell it to us, chances are that it can easily end up being something that the company does so often: demonstrate new technology just for the sake of it, only to kill it a few quick years later.