Monday, May 20, 2024

Google’s Magic Picture Machine Goes Beyond Science Fiction

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Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But even Clarke never envisioned Google’s Magic Picture Machine.

Let me show you a magic trick. My wife, Amira, is walking on a sidewalk parallel to a wonderful beach on the Italian Riviera. Tourists are all around walking all over the place. My wife stops to pose, and I use my smartphone to take a few pictures of her standing there. She starts walking, and I take a few more.

Later on, in our hotel room — nothing up my sleeve — I search Google for “My pictures of Amira in Italy,” and there they are: every picture I’ve taken of my wife in Italy. I also get those pictures searching for something basic, such as “beach.”

I didn’t upload the pictures, or index them for search. I didn’t tag them with “beach.” But, like magic, they were moved from my phone to the Internet and displayed to me privately on a public search engine using a word search.

Okay, so I head over to Google+ and open my picture albums. Google doesn’t show me all the pictures I took, just the good ones. In fact, they’re better than good. Google’s Magic Picture Machine has applied Photoshop-like improvements, making the clouds and sea look stunning, illuminating my wife’s face and subtly darkening and blurring the edges of the pictures.

Click a link and I now see all the pictures, good and bad. But wait! There are four new pictures I didn’t take, which appear as if pulled out of a hat.

The first shows my wife in front of the beach, but all the tourists are gone (a new feature called Auto Awesome Erase).

The second shows that sidewalk with my wife walking, plus four clones of my wife trailing behind her – where the motion of walking is captured and superimposed on a single image of the scene (Auto Awesome Action).

The third shows the beach scene with no people in the shot — not even my wife.

And the fourth is actually a GIF movie animation of her walking.

I simply took a few snapshots, and without doing anything else, my pictures have been uploaded, keyworded, indexed, “Photoshopped,” organized, and transformed into additional images showing action, motion and other cool effects, some of which would have taken me hours to do and others of which I simply could not do on my own.

Google’s Magic Picture Machine was announced in two parts. The first was rolled out in May at Google I/O, the company’s developer conference and the rest today at a special event in San Francisco.

Behind the Curtain

Google’s senior vice president for Social, Vic Gundotra, announced the latest features and enhancements today.

Gundotra said today that 1.5 billion pictures are uploaded each week into Google+ (by contrast Facebook claims 2.4 billion per week).

Despite that massive scale, he also announced that all pictures would now be stored and displayed in full resolution (Facebook and other social services aggressively compress uploaded pictures, degrading their quality) — a policy that makes sense given the incredibly good cameras and “Retina-quality” screens smartphones have now. And the iOS will soon auto-backup from iPhones just as it does from Android phones — even when the app isn’t launched by the user.

Besides the Magic Picture Machine features already mentioned, Google also offers intermediate and advanced photo editing tools that are less automatic but more powerful. These evolved mainly from Google’s acquisition of Nik Software, including Snapseed and Nik Collection. (Note that the Snapseed tools are available both on Google+ and also in a mobile app, while Nik Collection costs $149 and is for professional photographers).

Google announced other features as well, including new filters and features for the Snapseed and Nik Collection tools. One impressive feature for Snapseed is an HDR mode that can make a “high dynamic range” photo from a single image.

Google’s Magic Picture Machine performs tricks with video, too. In fact, it takes the drudgery out of the process entirely.

You can select, for example, multiple videos totaling a half hour in length, tell Google to make a one-minute video from them and click a button. Abracadabra! Google+ now creates a stabilized, edited video with a soundtrack appropriate to the mood of the video itself and timed to the transitions. The feature is called Auto Awesome Movie. (You can also apply “Instagram” like filters to change the mood of the video, change the music or even change the length of the edited movie, change the clips used and Google+ will re-edit it.)

Gundotra even announced the ability to “Photoshop” live video chat sessions, called video Hangouts. For example, you can blur the edges of the frame. Even when you don’t apply such filters, Hangouts now plays in high-definition by default, and auto-adjusts the settings so your face is properly lit.

Google’s Hangouts On Air feature lets you live-broadcast video chats to the public like you’re CNN. You now get a sound board for controlling the volume for each participant. You can even schedule Hangouts On Air, and by doing so enable Google+ to create a “landing page” for that event, according to Gundotra.

The Hangouts app now supports SMS, animated GIFs and one-click location sharing. (The addition of SMS support elevates the Hangouts product into one that can replace all other text-based real-time communication services for users who choose it.)

The new features announced today will go online individually over the coming days and weeks.

Why Google’s Magic Picture Machine Is Simply Amazing

Google’s announcements today around photography and video should interest just about everybody. They elevate Google+ into the best site for anyone who wants to backup their pictures in the cloud, anyone who wants really great looking pictures and, above all, people who have better things to do than slog through hundreds of pictures and videos and edit them manually.

But the automated aspects of Google’s photo offering should thrill futurists and hardcore technology fans. This is some seriously advanced supercomputer-level artificial intelligence being applied at an unprecedented scale. Nothing like this exists anywhere else.

Even futurists and science fiction writers never envisioned a machine that could grab high-resolution photos from your phone, upload them, categorized them by quality, recognize the people in and subjects of those pictures and index them accordingly, improve them skillfully with sophisticated photo editing tools and even manufacture entirely new images from them — all in a few seconds, free of charge for hundreds of millions of people.

It’s truly indistinguishable from magic.

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