project soli

At Google I/O 2016, the Mountain View company decided — although admittedly not an entirely new theme — that it would be a good idea to spread its announcements across three days. The keynote showed off Google’s vision for the future: virtual reality, its new AI and machine learning initiatives, Google Home hardware to take advantage of them, and a few sprinkles of Android Wear 2.0 goodness. The second day saw the announcement of the Play Store coming to Chrome OS.

But the third day was ATAP day, admittedly my favorite day of Google I/O. Last year the Advanced Technologies and Projects group at Google showed off Project Jacquard, Project Soli, some more details on Project Ara, and more. And then the company went silent. For pretty much an entire year.

Maybe that’s a good thing, as Google tends to show its projects and technologies off a little early in general. It’s not exactly out of Google’s character to show a product or service, say that it’s coming in 6 months, it not arrive for 12 months or 18 months, and then the final product share hardly any resemblance to what was originally announced. Admittedly that’s happening with some of ATAP’s projects either way (I’m looking at you, Ara), but at least it’s not a constant barrage of teases and false hope.

Anyway, Google ATAP finally came out of hiding on the third day of I/O yesterday, and with it came updates on Project Jacquard, Project Soli, Project Ara, and Spotlight Stories. Jacquard brought the announcement of the first retail product based on the tech, Ara brought a little update on how progress is coming including the most current prototype device with new module connectors (and promise of a dev kit coming soon), and the Spotlight Stories mention came with some progress in VR storytelling. All cool stuff.

But Soli is what makes my jaw drop.

I mentioned in a little opinion piece earlier this year that I wanted Google to update us on 4 projects come I/O, and I’m happy to say that the company granted my wish on 3 of the 4 (I will wait patiently for my Project Aura update…). I’ll be the first to admit that Soli was the one I most anticipated, and I’ll just say it now: Google did more than impress me with the update they gave us yesterday. I was already impressed last year, but the team’s commitment to put Soli in a smartwatch in just 12 months simply takes me aback.

As a wearables aficionado/enthusiast, I immediately saw why Soli was important on stage at I/O 2015. Ivan Poupyrev showed how he could use very fine motions to control the time on an imaginary watch face, and I dreamed of the day I would see a radar sensor built into an Android Wear device. It seemed just too futuristic to me, and I was under the impression that the radar hardware was going to be too big for a while. It’s hard to make radar small, much less small enough to fit inside the already-cramped body of a smartwatch.

And yet, that’s exactly what Google accomplished this year. I’ll admit that the demo they showed was not exactly the most polished demonstration of what the tech could do, but it was still more than I could have ever expected. The company showed how over the course of the last year they experimented with how to get the radar to fit in the watch, even venturing to add hardware to the watch back as to not have to cram it into the body of the watch. But on stage the company showed a modified LG Watch Urbane that was barely bigger than a standard one, with radar built-in.

The demo showed how the watch would react when you moved your hand close to the radar sensor, and allow you to scroll through a message by flicking your fingers inches away from the screen. Obviously this frees up the screen to show more content (your finger isn’t in the way!), but it also allows very precise control on a device that is otherwise pretty hard to get around. The initial versions of Android Wear were very barebones — resorting to simple cards that could be flicked up and down — but Soli seems to allow what is a much richer experience.

That, for me, is main problem with Android Wear. You have to control most things with your voice (which is still something that is socially awkward and uncomfortable for most, in public at least), or your finger (which gets in the way of 50% of the visible screen). There’s just no way to interact with the device that is a great experience. The Apple Watch’s Digital Crown is an attempt to remedy this problem, but it’s frankly not a great answer either as it’s small and limited to simply clockwise or counter-clockwise motions (and a button press).

I’ve yet to use the prototype watch myself, but I think this was the proof-of-concept I needed to keep believing that Soli was more than just a pipe dream. That goes for most of what ATAP announced yesterday. The Jacquard jacket is a real thing, and it’s actually going to be made by Levi’s later this year. The Ara team seems to be making steady progress too, and while I’m less likely to believe their “consumer in 2017” date, I’ll try to stay optimistic. Spotlight Stories, too, is continued proof to me that VR is going to be more popular than I want it to be.

As I’ve said many times in the past, I think ATAP is doing some of the coolest stuff at Google. Sure, Google’s new messaging app Allo is going to be able to suggest replies when my friend sends me a picture of my dog, and my Google Home device, besides being an Orwellian surveillance machine, is going to be able to tell me what bands were most popular in the summer of ’84. But ATAP is making some really big steps in how we interact with the technology we’re already familiar with. Soli embedded in a smartwatch completely changes the smartwatch.

Another example is the Soli-enabled speaker that the company showed. Soli can work from meters (!!!) away, which would mean a snap of a finger or the flick of a wrist could control my Bluetooth speakers from across the room. Of course it’s still early days, but I think Soli is going to be a game-changer. With Android Wear and smartwatches first perhaps, but also with all the other smart hardware in our homes and on our bodies.

In my eyes, yesterday was a make-it or break-it moment for ATAP. The division, unlike Google X, aims to graduate projects to Google proper (or kill them off) within two years to fast track their development. With Regina Dugan gone, I was worried that maybe ATAP was falling apart a little bit. But alas, under the leadership of Rick Osterloh and “DARPA Dan,” ATAP proved itself yesterday. Soli and Jacquard still have a little ways to go, but Ara was graduated to Google proper and it seems it might actually see the light of day as a consumer product next year. It looks like Soli will do the same.

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About the Author

Stephen Hall

Stephen is Growth Director at 9to5. If you want to get in touch, follow me on Twitter. Or, email at stephen (at) 9to5mac (dot) com, or an encrypted email at hallstephenj (at) protonmail (dot) com.