With Pixel 4, Google's experimental tech bets finally enter the spotlight

The search giant will soon unveil a flagship smartphone with radar technology, marking a significant milestone for the company.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
4 min read

Google's Ivan Poupyrev unveiled the Project Soli chip in 2015.

James Martin/CNET

Amid a steady stream of leaks related to its upcoming Pixel 4 phone, Google released a "leak" of its own in July. The search giant posted a 22-second YouTube video of a woman in front of the new phone, waving her hands in the air to control the device from a few inches away. The video was accompanied by a blog post touting Google's radar technology, which the company has been developing since 2015.

The announcement wasn't surprising simply because tech giants usually guard marquee device features like state secrets. It was also notable because the new capability marks a big step for Google: One of its in-house experimental technologies is finally being released to a massive consumer market. And it's coming out on one of Google's most important devices -- a phone, a gadget that's as ubiquitous as they come. 

On Tuesday, Google will formally introduce the Pixel 4 and its next generation of consumer devices at a splashy event in New York City. Among the expected new devices are updated versions of the Home Mini smart speaker and Wi-Fi router. 

Google's Pixel phones aren't market leaders by any means. Samsung , Huawei and Apple are the most popular handset makers worldwide, according to IDC. Google's phones don't even crack the top five. Earlier this year, Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat said on an earnings call that Pixel sales had dropped because of "recent pressures in the premium smartphone market," with customers bristling from the sticker shock of phones that cost more than $1,000. Sales have since rebounded with the addition of the budget Pixel 3A , unveiled in May. 

Phone makers are also facing a difficult side effect of their success: Most premium phones are so well made that people are holding onto them longer, and it's become harder to convince them of a compelling reason to upgrade every year. Google can use its hardcore engineering chops to try to get an edge, says Bob O'Donnell, principal analyst at Technalysis Research.

"We're in an environment where phones are so incredibly similar," O'Donnell said. "You need something to stand out."

Google began developing its radar tech, called Project Soli, four years ago in the search giant's Advanced Technology and Projects unit, or ATAP. The division, which operated like Google's version of DARPA, was responsible for experimental hardware. It was even led by former DARPA head Regina Dugan. The unit worked on several ambitious initiatives, including modular phones, augmented reality tablets and sensor-infused clothing. 

ATAP's progress was rocky. Google eventually pulled the plug on the modular phone project, in 2016. The fate of the division was left uncertain when Dugan departed that year for a similar effort at Facebook (she's since left Facebook, too). 

Google also restructured its hardware operation in 2016. As part of the reorganization, ATAP's autonomy was scaled back and the unit was placed within a new hardware division under Rick Osterloh, an industry veteran from Motorola , that Google tapped to lead its recalibrated consumer device efforts.

Since then, Google has slowly made good on some of its experimental hardware bets. Soli isn't the only ATAP project that's found its way to consumers. Two years ago, Google partnered with Levi's on a jean jacket equipped with Jacquard technology, the clothing-sensor project. Google followed up this year with a new version of the jacket, as well as a smart bag made by Yves Saint Laurent


Google's Pixel 3 phones, released last year.

Angela Lang/CNET

While those are still niche products, the Soli-powered Pixel 4 has the ability to reach a new mainstream audience. And it could just be the beginning for the technology.

Last month, fake renderings of what was purported to be the new version of the Google Home were circulated to tech journalists. (CNET received the photos but didn't publish them.) The hoax renderings included a circular screen, a removable charging dock and a Soli logo that indicated it had radar technology built in, just like the Pixel 4. 

Though the photos were bogus, the move to include gesture controls in home products would make sense, says O'Donnell, the analyst. That's especially true as voice software, like Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, faces more scrutiny for privacy issues. A hand wave, O'Donnell points out, can't really be transcribed or accidentally give up sensitive information, though it could open up another can of privacy concerns as the company starts to focus on physical movement. 

Though the feature is first coming to the Pixel, the technology could be more appealing in smart displays, says Frank Gillett, an analyst at Forrester. So if you're cooking in the kitchen, you could wave your hand in front of the screen rather than smear it with your messy fingers. Or if you're sitting on the couch watching TV, you could use your hand as a remote.

"This event is really a chance for them to lay out that vision," Gillett said. 

The self-leaked Soli phone may've just been a teaser for next week's event. But it might also provide a broader indication of what's to come.

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