The Pixel 4 is (once again) a step in the wrong direction for Google

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
The Pixel 4 is (once again) a step in the wrong direction for Google
Google just doesn't get it.

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...

Gesture navigation is cool, but why use it?

You have to use two hands for gestures, which is inconvenient most of the time

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.

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80 Comments

1. joshuaswingle

Posts: 653; Member since: Apr 03, 2018

I disagree. I think Pixel 4's a great move. Project Soli has massive potential and it shows Google's actually trying to differentiate itself from the competition rather than just follow useless trends. The initial teasers that have been put out don't show its full potential but I'm not surprised by that. Something's got to be saved for the official event. For anybody interested, here's a great video on the Pixel 4 and everything Project Soli can do:https://youtu.be/HoBiC2LdnT0

2. Victor.H

Posts: 1098; Member since: May 27, 2011

Realistically, what would you use a gesture interface for that you cannot do easier with taps and swipes? I can only think of two niche examples: using it with your hands wet and to switch songs while driving. Anything else?

5. surethom

Posts: 1730; Member since: Mar 04, 2009

Im happy with Soli but the phone Must also have an in-screen finger print scanner. Soli will definatly be a gimmick for most though.

55. sgodsell

Posts: 7570; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

I think if the make Chrome, Gmail, Photos, and almost any other app can take advantage of Soli, then it would be great. For instance use the radar to scroll down/up the web page, or through emails, contacts, and anything else.

7. Bankz

Posts: 2550; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

What's up this this dooms day prophecy? Or must every feature be life changing and revolutionary? Why don't you wait till it comes out first? Or Do you really think Google would have been stupid enough to show us everything the pixel could do with project solo in one ad? Trust me, Google aren't stupid and I'd advise you to follow their lead. Wether you like it or not, the pixel will bang. You love to see this.

23. rabramson2443 unregistered

Google might not be stupid but based on the quality of your grammar, you seem to be.

50. BuffaloSouce unregistered

You just proved to be 3 types of stupid with that comment.... What he said is true but you're just here to start dumb arguments over nothing.

9. Nexus4lifes

Posts: 300; Member since: Feb 13, 2014

Any feature that works perfectly is worth it- At this point we don't know how well it works - so give it a chance. BTW what is your take on face id? how is that easier than a finger print scan? I haven't seen any of our posts criticizing face id?

39. Vokilam

Posts: 1368; Member since: Mar 15, 2018

I love Face ID. Reason to got the IPhone X. It solved my daily problem of go scanner - at work my ya da are always dirty, sweaty, wet, or in gloves. Also, it’s nice when you have a notification - it doesn’t show it until you yourself look at the device and it shows it - no need for any features or efforts. Every website I visit that requires a sign it - just fills in data just by looking at the phone. At the stores, you can now prep your Apple Pay authentication just by looking at it. And it works so well, with glasses, not shaved, before and after haircut, wet face, dirty face, at night, at day. I will never go back to Touch ID.

11. ssallen

Posts: 214; Member since: Oct 06, 2017

They could implement a whole new gesture based interface using this where you could interact with your device without even picking it up. This could be amazing. How far they care to take it, and how well they implement it, remains to be seen. Saying its a gimmick from a short promo video is awfully short sighted for a guy writing for a tech rag.

13. Victor.H

Posts: 1098; Member since: May 27, 2011

A useful full-on gesture navigation would actually make this at least interesting, but my critique is that instead of teasing that, Google just showed the one feature (music control) that we know is the go-to gimmick for gestures. Also, I do imagine a gesture navigation on a large screen, Minority Report style, but I wonder, how do you imagine a two-handed gesture navigation on a handheld device? Wouldn't it just be easier to tap with one hand than using two hands, one to hold the device, and the other for gestures?

17. Nexus4lifes

Posts: 300; Member since: Feb 13, 2014

Victor that was a Teaser, I am sure project soli is more than music controls- if not I am sure it will bomb out. Btw- Yet to read your view on face scanning vs fingerprint scanning. I use the Pixel 3xl and used iphone xs max and found pixel 3xl way of unlocking much faster reliable and easier- why aren't you criticizing apple to hell about such a crazy decision to save hardware costs?

57. danny_a2005

Posts: 365; Member since: Oct 06, 2011

Cause they pay the bills honey

22. peschiera

Posts: 51; Member since: Sep 17, 2017

Victor, it is not our job to tell you about potential use cases, but I have many for you: - Sitting in an airplane, watching a movie on my phone which lies in my stand-in case on the table: using gestures to go back 10 second, move forward, change the volume, and more without touching the phone: this would be great - Sitting in the kitchen, watching a movie on my phone which lies in my stand-in case on the table: rejecting or accepting incoming calls within milliseconds and without moving the position of my phone: this would be great - Cooking in the kitchen, trying to cook a paella after a receipt in a video while having the phone in my stand-in case on the table: using gestures to go back 10 second, to stop the video in order to cut the onions, accepting/rejecting calls, ...: all would be great - Allowing to define gesture macros in order to activate whatever i like independent of which screen I'm currently in: this would be great

34. G1dream

Posts: 6; Member since: Oct 20, 2014

Let's not forget of the hands free google assistant that google demoed this summer. They said it would debut on the pixel 4. Pair that with soli and Google can do some serious hands free navigation with the pixel 4. Hopefully the demo are just crumbs they are feeding us and saving the big stuff for the big reveal.

38. MrMalignance

Posts: 325; Member since: Feb 17, 2013

@victor: that may be true, but that is assuming that you picked the phone up. I think what they might be aiming at is the ability to not pick your phone up at all. That could be great if you could navigate at a distance

15. joshuaswingle

Posts: 653; Member since: Apr 03, 2018

Just because we can already do something with our fingers doesn't mean it can't be done better or made easier. Old PDAs and mobile devices with touchscreens used to require crappy styluses. Fingers can do virtually the same things but ultimately replaced them because it's a more intuitive system. Air gestures aren't going to fully replace taps or swipes, but I'm sure there are lots of day-to-day things that could be made easier. Even something as simple as checking notifications. Currently, if you're phone's laying on a table you need to touch the screen or pick it up. Being able to slightly move your fingers over the top of the device would be easier. Sure, a tap doesn't require much, but a tiny gesture requires even less. There's also the case of people with accessibility needs. Sometimes touching a phone's display just isn't an easy solution. The very obvious and awkward gestures that Samsung and LG require aren't practical either. Project Soli could potentially fix this. IMO Project Soli could easily be one of those cases where "consumers don't know what they want until you show it to them."

20. shiv179

Posts: 190; Member since: Aug 08, 2012

Wow, never thought I would see the PA guys debating in the comment section :) I agree with you Joshua.

24. Victor.H

Posts: 1098; Member since: May 27, 2011

Interesting points and I appreciate your enthusiasm about gestures! I don't dislike gestures, I just don't think they are a good fit as a mainstream smartphone navigation system and they usually make things more complex rather than easier. I also criticize Google for not providing real examples where using gestures would actually provide a meaningful improvement. Even the only one concrete example you provide with notifications is made moot by modern implementations: you don't need Project Soli to detect a basic hand wave / hover. You can wave / hover your hand to wake your screen on Moto devices right now easily without the radars. And you could do the music skipping back in 2013 without Soli. So once again, let's see what it can actually do that makes sense. I am excited about Soli on its own, I just don't see how it improves the smartphone experience in particular and Google has not helped much so far by providing the one example that we have seen as a gimmick in the past.

40. MrMalignance

Posts: 325; Member since: Feb 17, 2013

I appreciate you and Joshua being a good example on how to debate on this site. You both have a difference of opinion, but are able to bring up talking points, with evidence/examples, and not resort to making things personal. There's too many people doing that on here

51. snowgator

Posts: 3621; Member since: Jan 19, 2011

Always has been. You should have been on this site at the apex of the Android/iOS/Windows Phone wars. It was brutal to even post. Joshua and Victor are fun to read debates from on this. Add my like to it.

58. danny_a2005

Posts: 365; Member since: Oct 06, 2011

We can say the same thing about the S-Pen on the note series, we can do al of that with our hands, cmon, give it a shot at least on the pixe, it could be useful, so to destroy a phone before it comes out, as the article title says, its not professional

76. ssallen

Posts: 214; Member since: Oct 06, 2017

Maybe actually wait until the October event where Google has more than 30 seconds to show off what they are doing? The hardware is baked but they probably don't want to show off too much (read: reproducible) software prior to the release.

69. oldskool50 unregistered

Exactly. Iys just like Victor's idiotic Note article. Saying most things done on the Note with the S-pen can be done with your fingers. Yeah they can, but your big ass fingers cant be as precise as a pen. Yes I can sign my name with my fingers, but it isn't as need an legible vs using a pen. Yes I can draw with my fingers, but it isnt gonna be as precise as a pen. The problem with Victor is the same thing with all Apple fans, they only wanna accept one way of doing something and denouve other options. It shouldn't be about what's better or not, its about having options. Of you dont want to use gestures, then dont. But don't knock it because you cant or dont wanna use it. Dont knock the elevator because you wanna use the stairs. Dont knock the train, because you wanna walk. I would say, many consumer may not know that these devices can perform tasks by others means, until someone makes it available to them.

56. danny_a2005

Posts: 365; Member since: Oct 06, 2011

well those are features that we can't see in other phone, plus i think they will be reliable, Phonearena said the same thing about the squeeze feature, and I use it a lot while driving.

59. highwaysnobbery

Posts: 57; Member since: Feb 19, 2013

Those two are huge for me. But my opinion doesn't matter, I really like Pixel phones. It's the software that keeps bringing me back. I also own an S10, love the screen, software isn't where I want it yet.

62. Deadeye37

Posts: 311; Member since: Jan 25, 2011

I see this being handy if the phone is out on a desk and you want to do something like change the track, adjust volume, turn the screen on, etc. On my Moto X, I would use the wave your hand in front of the screen gesture to turn on the screen, which was super handy for seeing the time if my phone was on my desk with the screen off.

64. oldskool50 unregistered

What would you being saying if your beloved Ape was doing this? Also we have seen gesture driven handoff things beforw. Samsung had several on the S4. The issue was simply the hardware was too under-powered to make them work reliably. But they did work. Fast forward 6 years and we have better hardware with a better optimized platform where a al.ost complete gesture handoff driven UI is more possible. Everything had to start somewhere Victor. But because this is Android, you have to be super critical ot. If you were equally as critical.of Apple I wouldn't even say anything. Youe worse then the losers in the comment section. Your hate of Android is so obvious. Why don't you just only write Apple articles. You seem to only have an issue with advances in tech, when it isn't Apple. You are a loser bruh and I don't pity you. Android must have bullied you in school

68. SolidWind

Posts: 1; Member since: Aug 05, 2019

1. When I am washing dishes 2. I am cooking 3. When I am playing with my baby and my phone is charging at the corner 4. When my baby is sleeping and I am holding her and my phone is charging at the corner 5. When I am at the beach, my hand is full of sand 6. I might want to use it to play games with my older son and daughter, so they can make funny gestures 7. A music conductor game 8. Presentation at work that my phone is connected to projector 9. When I wanna show something (like documents, website, etc) to my wife or friends or strangers where they are at a distance. 10. I am besides the pool, hand full of sunscreen Easily 10 examples. Btw, I don't think we should do it when we are driving, that's actually more dangerous to focus on making sure gesture is right.

70. Mashiba

Posts: 7; Member since: Nov 26, 2018

You really don't know what Soli Radar can do. Try to research more about this technology before you react. Soli radar is not all about gestures, it can detect object like empty glass or glass of water. With the machine learning, you can teach it different objects. if some thing is misplaced and you remembered that you teach that thing in your phone, it can help you to find that thing using soli radar. Well security guard in malls can use it too. XD Just research more about the soli radar

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