Pixel 4 may have killed Motion Sense, but Soli’s future is bright

When Google unveiled the Pixel 4 in 2019, people were excited to try out its face lock feature. Motion Sense, a new technology that used Google’s custom Soli radar sensor, tracked motion and depth in real time. The feature showed promise; Motion Sense could detect that your hand was moving towards the Pixel 4 and automatically unlocked your phone when you picked it up. But that promise was short-lived, and the feature has been absent from every Pixel page. Does that mean we’ve seen the end of Motion Sense, or will it show up in other ways? Why was it removed from the Pixel series in the first place? As is often the case, several factors led to the removal of Motion Sense from the Pixel series.

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Motion Sense enabled more than face locking on the Pixel 4, as it also added gestures to control media. A mid-air punch would play or pause music; a quick swipe left or right would change tracks or sound an alarm. In theory, it sounded pretty good. You no longer have to worry about pressing to pause an alarm in the middle of the recipe – you can cancel it with a wave of your hand. Unfortunately, the movements did not work well in practice, and countless updates have not done much to improve them.

Face lock was another story. Even now, it’s the closest an Android phone has come to competing with the iPhone’s beloved Face ID biometrics, and it worked almost perfectly (even though it was launched without a critical security feature). Unfortunately, face lock was not enough to prevent Motion Sense from being scrapped in all Pixel models since, and you have to wonder, given the criticism of Google’s in-display fingerprint sensor in Pixel 6, why Soli has completely disappeared from Google Phones.

Remove Motion Sense from the equation and you will realize that Soli is an incredible piece of hardware. Creating a miniature radar chip that fits into the top edge of a smartphone is no easy task. Granted, the Pixel 4’s frame is thick compared to its successors, and it would be an even greater challenge to cram a Soli chip into the almost frameless Pixel 6.

Regulatory issues were likely a significant factor leading to the death of Soli and Motion Sense on future Pixel models. Soli operates at the 60GHz frequency, which is reserved for military and government use in India. The regulatory hurdle left Google with two options: it could disable Soli and Motion Sense on Pixel 4 models sold in India, or it could skip the launch of its flagship in one of the world’s fastest growing smartphone markets. Google went with the latter, which significantly hurt sales.

In fact, Motion Sense, Pixel 4’s only biometric authentication feature, is only authorized to operate in a handful of countries. If you do not live in the United States, Canada, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, Japan or most parts of Europe, you are unlucky.

Soli was also significantly more expensive than the reliable old fingerprint scanner found in Pixels that came before and after Pixel 4. Shortly before the release of Pixel 5, Rick Osterloh, Google’s SVP for Devices and Services, told The Verge that Soli would reappear in the future, but it was too expensive for the phone the company would make.

While Soli has been absent from Google Phones lately, it’s still alive. You’ll find it in the second generation of the Nest Hub, and it seems like a better product that fits the technology. Many of Pixel 4’s Motion Sense gestures are available on Google’s latest smart screen, and they actually work well. Waving a hand to the Nest Hub to pause your media from across the room is easier than trying to shout “Hey, Google” over the Fall Out Boy song booming from your Nest.

Nest Hub also relies on Soli to detect when you are nearby and to monitor your sleep patterns. Placed on a bedside table, the Nest Hubs Soli radar extends far enough to detect when you are sleeping and to track your breathing. Soli even appears in the renewed Nest thermostat, but it only detects presence – there are no fun movements to adjust the temperature in the air.

It’s been a wild ride for Soli and Motion Sense. The hype before the release of Pixel 4 was palpable, but that hype quickly disappeared. Motion Sense gestures were hit or missed, and excellent biometric authentication was not enough to save Google’s flagship.

Probably expect to see more of Soli sans Motion Sense, in the future. Google’s Advanced Technology And Projects Department (ATAP) showed what it’s working on with Soli in March 2022. Google wants to use Soli to improve the user experience in smart home products. Hopefully Google will find ways to use Soli for ease of use and accessibility features; the hardware could help people living with movement disorders and other neurological conditions. We can easily imagine a future iteration of Project Diva, where a Soli sensor replaces the button, or as a way to identify low speech for Project Euphonia.

Although Soli has a bright future, it’s hard to say the same about Motion Sense. It’s unlikely that we’ll see any of them show up on the Pixel 7, but we will not count it out for future models. For the duo to work, it would require new thinking, a complete overhaul of Motion Sense and technical changes that would make it available worldwide. More likely, however, it will be referred to the pile of failed software experiments that do not fully utilize the hardware they depend on. And even without the Soli, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are still two of the best Android phones you can buy, even if they have a few issues of their own.


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