While the future of Google+ may be up in the air, there's no doubt that its comprehensive photo service is among the best free options available for backing up and online editing. Now, Google is trying to make sure people actually do something with the photos they shoot by launching Google+ Stories. Just as Google+ already has auto-backup and auto-enhance, this new feature is perhaps best explained as "auto album." The new feature analyzes the photos you upload to Google+ or Drive and pulls together an easily sharable "story" — a day-by-day timeline of photos, "auto awesome" GIFs, videos, and other content meant to give you a representation of moments in your life that were important enough for you to photograph in the first place.
"With Stories, we're trying to solve three major user pain points," says Ben Eidelson, a product manager on the Google+ Photos team. "First, it's simply too much work to curate your photos." Stories solves that by using the same technology that pulls out and displays highlighted photos in your Google+ account to group dozens of similar photos — for example, snaps from your weekend in Napa or a week-long trip to Hawaii. It then curates them into a representative group, cutting out duplicates and blurry photos to bring your best shots to the front.
"Second, we don't think an album is enough to capture and be able to tell the story of your life," says Eidelson. Instead of as a grid of collected images from a day or week, Stories presents itself as a left-to-right timeline that you can swipe through. The small amounts of animation and varying photo sizes make it feel more like a printed photo book come to life, and Google also bundles in information about any noteworthy locations or landmarks you might have visited.
"We're improving on the staleness of a [photo] album."
"We’re improving on the staleness of an album," he says. "An album is this great container of content, but if you think about it, it doesn't capture any sense of time or place." Stories include big, full-bleed images that break up your trip into days, and included maps show where exactly you visited. Surprisingly, Stories can do this even if your image aren’t geotagged. Aside from geotagged photos and Google’s own location-history feature (the same tool used by Google Now to know your commute, for example), Stories also uses landmark recognition to scan and identify buildings, statues, or natural wonders like the Grand Canyon. Once it recognizes those items, it can group those photos accordingly.
The last major problem Stories is attempting to solve is sharing — the common concern that users will go on a trip or just a long day around town, take dozens of photos, and never do anything with them. "We want people to share photos or a video at the time they actually experience the moment," says Anil Sabharwal, director of the Google+ Photos team. "Otherwise you have things sitting on your hard drive for years and years before you share your baby's first step — even though she's now in high school."
While the big draw of Stories may be its automation, Google lets users tweak their collections extensively as well. Google+ is smart enough to wait a bit before generating a story, giving users time to upload photos from their cameras as well as their smartphones. The story can be edited by users photo by photo if they want to spend the time. "I didn't do anything to tell Google where I was or what I was doing," says Eidelson, showing off a story from a week in Mexico. "I just lived my life."
For those who just want to trust Google’s algorithms, however, they’ll get new stories created when they take lots of photos in a small amount of time, and Google will also go back and make stories out of the photos already uploaded to users’ accounts. That’s both a blessing and a curse — my account had a number of stories for notable events, but Google also created a story out of some random photos of my dog at the park and household objects I was putting on Craigslist. If you have a lot of photos in your account, expect to take some time cutting down on the noise.
Time will tell if Stories is a solution in search of a problem
There’s also a question of whether photo sharing has moved beyond what Google is trying to solve with Stories. There’s no doubt that Stories are easier to create than actually going through your vacation photos and assembling a nice album — but with Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, many people now share their lives and experiences as they happen, in real time, rather than afterwards. For many, a handful of Instagram uploads every day may be a better way to share than something as elaborate as Stories.
That said, there’s little reason not to do both, particularly if you’re the kind of photographer who takes hundreds of photos on a given weekend. If you’re already using Google+ to manage your photos, Stories are easy to create, totally customizable, and provide yet another incentive to stay in Google’s ecosystem. Stories launches today as part of a new Google+ app for Android as well as on the web, and the service will be coming to the Google+ iOS app "soon."