The Pixel phone’s Motion Sense mystery


This time nearly a year ago, I was genuinely excited.

The month was June of 2019. Rumors were flying fast about Google’s then-still-under-wraps Pixel 4 phone, and an especially juicy one had just made its way to the surface.

The Pixel 4 would feature a wild new kind of radar system, the grapeline informed us — a system we’d been hearing about from Google for years but that had remained a lab-based experiment up until that point. It was called Project Soli, and Goog almighty, did it sound promising.

Project Soli got its start as a part of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division and had been the subject of several awe-inspiring demos over the years. The Pixel 4, though, would mark the first time we’d see it in an actual user-facing product — and the first time we mere tech-toting mortals would have the chance to experience its magical-seeming wares.

It should have been spectacular. And it should have been just the beginning.

But here we are today, nearly seven months to the day from the Pixel 4’s debut — and the phone’s flashy radar system, now known as Motion Sense, hasn’t even come close to meeting its potential. What’s more, a fresh set of rumors suggests Google could be giving up on the effort entirely with its Pixel phones and going Soli-free with this year’s Pixel 5 flagship.

If so, it’d be a classic Google about-face — yet another one of the company’s many moments of having some inspired idea, breathlessly convincing us of its value, and then losing interest and moving on instead of nourishing the notion and allowing it to develop. And with Motion Sense in particular, that’d be a damn shame to see — because this system really had the potential to turn into something special.

We’ll get into why as well as the question of what might’ve happened along the way in a moment. First, we need to rewind for a second to refresh ourselves on what Google’s crazy-sounding radar system was supposed to accomplish — and then come back to what it’s actually done so far. Because boy howdy, is there quite the contrast between those two things.

The obvious explanation is the typical one: Google lost interest, changed priorities, and decided to cut its losses and move on — an all-too-familiar tale for those of us who watch this company closely. Today’s strategic focus is tomorrow’s abandoned plan. It happens all the freakin’ time.

But it’s possible there may be more to this — provided, of course, that the Pixel radar pivot is actually happening. Earlier this year, remember, we saw signs that the upcoming Pixel 5 flagship could use a more midrange-level processor instead of the top-of-the-line chip most 2020 Android flagships are packing. That’s especially significant because that top-of-the-line chip requires the presence of 5G, which makes the phones using it exceptionally expensive and with little added benefit for most of us.

Google going with a more cost-effective chip for the Pixel 5 could eliminate the premature 5G-fixation so many other device-makers are now exhibiting. And that, in turn, could pave the way for Google to lower the Pixel 5’s price from the line’s current $800 starting point to, say, somewhere in the ballpark of $600 or $700 — a notion reinforced by an apparent survey making the rounds right now to gauge perception of a $699 Pixel phone.

Combined with recent reports of particularly disappointing Pixel 4 sales, it’s entirely possible Google decided going for a lower-priced phone was its best chance at helping the Pixel achieve more mainstream success — something I think makes an awful lot of sense. And it’s quite conceivable that a fancy radar-gesture system simply wouldn’t fit into a more value-minded scenario.

So if that proves to be the case, then an absence of Motion Sense in a Pixel 5 could actually be sensible. But regardless, what we saw with the feature at the start of the Pixel 4’s life was supposed to have been just the beginning. Google even hinted that the technology could make its way to other types of devices — something I optimistically hoped would serve as a missing piece of the puzzle that really showed off the value of Google’s homegrown hardware effort.

And who knows? Maybe some of that development will still happen on a less unified, more piecemeal level. (Just last week, word broke about an apparent Google patent filing involving Motion-Sense-reminiscent gestures on a smartwatch, but it seems to use an “optical sensor” of some sort instead of the Soli-like radar system. It was also filed all the way back in January of 2019. And patent filings in general tend to fly fast and frequently in the tech world and often have no direct connection to a company’s actual active road map.)

But knowing Google, it’s hard not to wonder if this could be the end — the end of an exciting and promising technological journey that never truly progressed past its beginning. Google’s willingness to constantly reassess its products and pivot away from once-prominent plans can sometimes be an asset. But that same lack of commitment and willingness to stick with something long enough to see it through can also be a liability. And most frustrating of all is the realization that, if things end up playing out as expected here, we’ll likely never know what could have been. 

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(Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld)

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