Google+ gives photo lovers what Facebook doesn't

Big changes are coming to Google+, with an impressive set of automated filters and hashtags announced at Google I/O 2013 taking square aim at photographers of all stripes.

Photos in Google+
Photos in Google+ will now auto-correct images, tweaking things like contrast, brightness, noise, and skin smoothing. Google

SAN FRANCISCO -- Facebook has been the photo king since 2008, but Google just put the social network on notice.

Changes to the Google+ social network -- announced Wednesday at the Google I/O conference at the Moscone Center West here, and launching Wednesday as well -- include a new interface, some new Hangouts features, and most impressively, a series of automatic filters and hashtags for your photos. "Automatic filters," though, doesn't really do justice to how comprehensive they can be.

"Quite a lot [of the new automation] depends on the Knowledge Graph," said Dave Besbris, vice president of engineering for Google+, during a demo of the new Google+ features at Google headquarters last week. Google's Knowledge Graph is growing database of 570 million people, places, and things, and 18 billion facts. Previously, though, the Knowledge Graph had been limited in application primarily to text, not images.

Google+ claims 190 million monthly active users, with around 390 million total users when including people brought in from other Google services like Gmail.

"We can analyze the picture itself to see what it is. [The image filters are] not good enough to know that it's Mick Jagger, but it can tell that if there's a guy on stage with lights and a crowd, that then it's a concert," Besbris said. "It will tag [the photo] as 'concert'."

Layouts and Hangouts The changes made to the Google+ Stream interface, Hangouts, and Photos are myriad and a bit complex in scope, but their impact on the social network's fans should be immediate. These are changes made by the new Google, focused on gaining popular appeal, not the old Google that would've made nerdier changes because they seemed cool but were largely unwanted.

The updated Google+ Stream design is what you'll see first, and it hints at the photo-editing powers the service has gained. It strongly resembles your Google+ Stream on Android and iOS. Instead of a single, centered column for your stream, you're presented with a Pinterest-style, three-column layout, assuming your screen is wide enough. If it's not, it'll scale down to two or one columns.

Google+'s layout has favored images since it launched in 2011 , with large thumbnails accompanying posts. This hasn't changed, and has led to a lot of interest in the network from photographers looking for the kind of photographic-minded community that Google+'s Circles allowed them to build.

To further the goal of emphasizing images, the left-side nav bar has been moved to the top, and Hangouts are accessible through a green dialogue balloon with white quotes in it on the upper right.

They've been moved out of the way to clear space for higher-resolution video and photos to appear directly in your Stream, before you click on them. Posts basically look like Google Now cards, discrete units of information, which fade and flip out of the way or get bigger when you click them. They open large, consuming the horizontal center of your screen.

The Share box for creating a new post has been moved to the upper left, and bounces and moves the center of the screen when you click on it. It may sound a bit like the old HTML "blink" tag, although during a demo last week at Google's offices in Mountain View it appeared far less irritating than that relic of 1990s Web design.

Hashtags on posts have been moved to the upper right corner, so they're easier to see, but they're also now automatically added to posts. While you can still use whatever hashtags you want, which appear in a black font, up to three blue hashtags are added by Google based on context. Clicking either blue or black hashtag flips the post and shows connected posts in-line.

These Google-sourced hashtags can be removed individually from posts, or turned off entirely. And not surprisingly, the auto-hashtags leverage data from the Knowledge Graph.

Like the Facebook News Feed, the Google+ Stream has seen recent controversy and complaint from people who want to see a clean timeline of posts with the most recent on top. A Google spokesperson said that's not likely to change anytime soon. "The ranking of content will not changed based on the new redesign of the Stream," she said.

Hangouts has been expanded to become more competitive with Skype, into which Microsoft has been putting a lot of work recently. Google would argue that Hangouts is at the level of a universal messaging client because it's available through browsers, Android, and iOS, while offering strong support of video, text, and photos. "There's a resurgence in real-time communication," said Bradley Horowitz, who's in charge of Google+'s product management. "In spite of the fact that there are 20 players in the space, there's no one player that's doing it all."

The changes include a conversation history that lets you easily swipe back in time even in the middle of a conversation; universal notification clearing, so that notifications opened on one device will be cleared from all others; and a crisper display for photos and emoji.

Google services including and perhaps especially Google+ are becoming more interconnected. Last year, it was forcing Gmail logins under the Google+ umbrella, but now it's extending to interface design and backend databases. If you're a fan of Google services, this is a good thing, but frankly, nobody's going to change their primary social network from Facebook to Google+ just for auto-hashtags and an interesting layout.

Play
Automatic photographic expertise for free Google's a long way from knocking Facebook off the Iron Throne of photography, but that doesn't mean it's afraid to make a play for that chair.

To that end, Wednesday's announcement combines the filtering know-how Google assimilated when it purchased Nik Software last September with an impressive amount of cloud-sourced automation.

"We don't delete your photos, we're giving you a head start," said Horowitz. "This is non-destructive and can be turned off," but Google's really hoping that you don't.

What the filters can do is remarkable to see in person. The Auto Highlight feature hides from your immediate view bad photos -- duplicates, out-of-focus pics, and poorly-exposed shots -- and highlighting the ones it thinks you want to see. Simply by going to your Photos page, it shows you pics that emphasize affinity in people, such as recognized family and friends, as well as landmarks and scenarios such as sunsets or mountain vistas.

Auto Enhance "fixes" those photos. It automatically corrects for basic photographic technique that have, up until now, required some advanced knowledge of image editing. Areas it focuses on include contrast and brightness, noise, focus when possible, skin softening, composition, and saturation. To see the original photo or turn off the improvements, open the image in the Google+ Photos Lightbox.

The automation relies heavily on a photo's EXIF data, but doesn't use camera body profiling yet, said Besbris. "Today we look at the exposure, the ISO, the aperture. We know that a crummy cell phone camera at night will need more processing than a DSLR."

What Google is calling "auto awesome" is a very "new Google" take on how to fun with photos. "Smile" will take several nearly-identical group photos and create one that has everybody smiling and with their eyes looking at the camera. "Pano" stitches together panorama landscape photos; "Motion" is basically an animiated GIF-maker; "Mix" creates photobooth-style shots from multiple portraits; and "HDR" automatically makes photos look like they were shot as high-dynamic range images even when they weren't.

The automatic filtering works on images as you upload them, and can handle enormous batch uploads. 500 photos from your last vacation should be no problem.

To facilitate that, Google has bumped its storage capacity to encourage you to use Google+. All users get unlimited free storage for photos up to 2048px, and 15GB storage for photos larger than that. Of course, that 15GB has to be shared with Gmail and Google Drive.

Coming at some point relatively soon after Google I/O will be colorcast correction, which fixes images that have a particular color tinge to them.

For all we know, this could be an elaborate ploy by Google to get you to buy storage, because it's not hard to imagine wanting to keep high-end photos alongside more casual snaps.

Horowitz, clearly proud of the new filters, quoted Ansel Adams when explaining why he thought people would be attracted to the Google+ image editing: "You don't take a photograph, you make it."

The filters are impressive to see in action because of their scale and their effectiveness. They work, and they'll improve on so many of the casual photos that many people take. The question is, will this be enough to drive people to Google+?

Google is betting that people will say yes, and it's betting that the new interface will entice them to share their newly auto-edited pics. It has a long way to go to catch up with Facebook, which sees more than 350 million new photos shared everyday, and more than 240 billion photos shared to date.

The penalty for failure here isn't quite as extreme as in "A Game of Thrones," where you win or you die, but there's no doubt that this isn't a half-hearted effort by Google to go after the king of social photography. This is war.

 

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