Google just can’t help talking about the Pixel 4 ahead of its presumed October launch. In a YouTube video and blog post, the company revealed that the phone will feature face unlock technology instead of a fingerprint sensor. Google also revealed that the Pixel 4 will have a feature called “Motion Sense,” which confirms that it will have a Project Soli chip that uses radar to detect hand gestures near the phone.
Adding face unlock puts the Pixel 4 on par with modern iPhones for unlocking, and it’s (at least in theory) more convenient than an in-screen fingerprint sensor. It’s also another example of Google raising the stakes on itself: if the Pixel’s face unlock isn’t as fast or as secure as the iPhone’s, that’s going to be a huge problem. Most attempts at face unlock on Android phones used just the selfie camera and were insecure and inaccurate (though, recently, a few have tried more advanced ways).
Google couldn’t help but take a small swipe at the iPhone while it can: right now, Face ID doesn’t work unless the phone is right-side up. But Apple already overcame this limitation on the iPad Pro and might offer the same flexibility with its 2019 iPhone lineup. Google also confirmed that the Pixel 4 will use the face unlock feature for payments: “face unlock works in almost any orientation — even if you’re holding it upside down — and you can use it for secure payments and app authentication too.” As with the iPhone, Google says that biometric data will be stored locally in a secure chip and never shared with other Google services.
The Pixel 4’s face unlock feature will use a variety of sensors to identify your face, including depth, infrared, and RGB. That should mean that it will work in a variety of lighting situations and also work with a diverse set of faces. Google has told me that it has done “field research” to ensure both of those things.
Looking at the image below, what you won’t see is a second front-facing camera. The Pixel 3 and 3 XL both had an ultra-wide selfie shooter that could capture more of your surroundings or cram more people into a photo. But Google seems to be moving away from that strategy this year. The Pixel 3A has a single front-facing camera with a wider field of view than the Pixel 3’s regular one, so maybe Google will carry that over to the 4.
Here’s how Google describes the features in its YouTube description:
Pixel 4 is in the works - here’s an early look at some new tech coming to next-generation Pixel this Fall. This tech enables two new features - Motion Sense and face unlock - helping you to get things done without having to touch it.
As for the “Motion Sense” feature, there’s not a ton that we can glean from Google’s article. Earlier rumors have pointed to it being related to Project Soli, which uses radar to detect tiny hand or finger movements above the device. For example, Google has demoed rubbing your thumb and index finger together to simulate turning a dial on a smartwatch. Some code found in the next version of Android has suggested it could be used for media controls at the very least.
Google’s blog post says:
Pixel 4 will be the first device with Soli, powering our new Motion Sense features to allow you to skip songs, snooze alarms, and silence phone calls, just by waving your hand. These capabilities are just the start, and just as Pixels get better over time, Motion Sense will evolve as well
Google’s post cites a possible use case where the Soli chip could detect your hand reaching for the phone, which would automatically turn on “the face unlock sensors.” If it all works, the phone would automatically unlock itself and be ready by the time you’re looking at it.
We first tried Project Soli back in 2015 when Google expected it to launch in products like smartwatches and speakers. Instead, its first commercial launch is coming in Google’s flagship smartphone.
As with the earlier tweet that revealed a photo of the Pixel 4’s camera, neither the face unlock feature nor the Soli chip is really a surprise. The first clue was leaks that showed that there was no fingerprint sensor on the back. The second clue was leaks that poined to the phone having no notch at the top of the screen, instead keeping a very large bezel with multiple cameras and sensors. The holes in the bezel we’ve seen show enough gaps that it was all but certain that the Pixel 4 would have face unlock and Project Soli.
Announcing face unlock for the Pixel 4 just a little over a week ahead of Samsung’s Note 10 announcement (on August 7th) is savvy, as the Note 10 is likely going to have an in-screen fingerprint sensor. Whether potential Note 10 customers might hold off on buying to see more from the Pixel is an open question, but Samsung probably isn’t going to be super pleased that it’s even worth asking. If Google really is getting serious about making the Pixel a real business, it’s going to need to be willing to pull some market share away from its Android partners.
The Pixel 4 is expected to launch in October. Normally, I’d use the word “announce,” but we’re well beyond that now.