No doubt Android fans will probably counter me on this, but it was a rather tepid launch of the Google Pixel 4 and the Pixel 4 XL smartphones. For all the excitement and enthusiasm that was on show over the past few weeks with all those “leaks” and “spotted in the wild” nuggets of information doing rounds on social media, Google pretty much got on with the official launch without much fuss and went away. All the excitement about the camera? Google effectively said, well, it is even better than before. And muttered something about mathematical calculations, artificial intelligence, pixels and that was it. The one thing that stood out though is the tiny radar chip. Google likes to call it Motion Sense. Basically, it comes with the promise that you can control your phone with gestures. This is Project Soli coming to life, ever since Google first talked about this way back in 2015 (if memory serves me well).
Promises are one thing. The bigger problem that Google could have is bridging the gap between what Motion Sense on the Pixel 4 phones can actually do and the expectations from consumers regarding its potential. For starters, this Project Soli radar chip creates a small bubble around the phone and remains aware of any gestures or movements within that bubble. Remember, this radar is active only when the Pixel 4 phone is kept face up on a table or positioned in a face out on a dock, for instance. It’ll notice your movements near the phone and enable the always-on display for you to glance at the time or notifications. If the phone detects that you are outstretching your hand towards it, the face unlock sensors will quickly look for you and unlocks the phone. If an alarm is blaring (mornings on weekdays are never pleasant) and the radar chips detects your hand reaching towards it to either silence or snooze it, the volume automatically reduces. But things get a bit more serious with the gestures. A wave to disconnect a call, controlling music playback with hand movement gestures and more.
As things stand, Google is integrating this in Android so much so that Android on a Pixel 4 phone, with the gesture controls activated, will feel like a completely different experience compared with Android on an older Pixel phone. It isn’t clear if and when Google will allow app developers access to this radar data—and while that could be a defining moment for Android and how we use Android phones, Google’s apprehension is understandable.
But, didn’t you just use some of these features in your Apple iPhone or some other flagship Android phones? For instance, when you pick up an Apple iPhone, the accelerometer understands that movement, the Face ID camera kicks in to authenticate your presence and unlocks the phone for you. Samsung phones, for instance, have the attention awareness feature that keeps the display on when it notices your eye movements. Back to the iPhone, and the new iPhone 11 Pro will check for your attention before reducing the volume of alerts or dimming the illumination of the display. Yes, a radar chip will probably be able to do more as we go onwards on this touch but no touch journey, but the seriously good cameras on smartphones these days haven’t really left us in the lurch when it comes to the movement and attention awareness features that are already available.
There is a definite privacy angle though—a radar chip is not a camera. So in a way, it cannot really identify your physical characteristics, till you need to unlock the Pixel 4—which is where the face detection will work through the camera. Then there is the power angle—a radar chip should ideally consume lesser battery than a camera.
Well, it would be fun to wave to the Pokémon wallpaper every morning, and have it wave back with equal enthusiasm.
But this radar chip will equally be a headache for Google, at least as far as regulatory requirements in some countries are concerned. The Project Soli documentation states that, “The Soli sensor can track sub-millimetre motion at high speed and accuracy. Currently there is no other product on the market with comparable precision and detection range. The use of 60 GHz allows for a resolution of 20 mm. With additional algorithms, the solution operates with sub-mm resolution.” India, for instance, is one of the countries where the Google Pixel 4 isn’t being launched. “We decided not to make Pixel 4 available in India. We remain committed to our current Pixel phones and look forward to bringing future Pixel devices to India,” says Google in an official statement. Google doesn’t say exactly why, but it isn’t hard to imagine that this radar chip is the reason.
In India, not all wireless frequencies are available for commercial use. For certain frequencies, permissions are required, while certain frequency bands are exempted already. The Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing (WPC) of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) was formed in 1952 and its statutory functions include licensing, operation and maintenance of frequency spectrum for commercial and well as non-commercial requirements. Then there is Standing Advisory Committee on Radio Frequency Allocation (SACFA), a division of the WPC, which makes recommendations on major frequency allocation issues, the formulation of the frequency allocation plan and more.
At present, the 36 MHz to 38 MHz bands are exempt from licensing, and these are used for low-power wireless communication equipment. The WPC has also exempted the 76 GHz to 77 GHz bands which are used by short range radar systems—this was back in 2015. These are being used by sensors in automobiles for instance, to enable radar based safety features including lane change detection, collision warning and blind-spot detection. But as things stand, the 60 GHz band that the Project Soli chip in the Google Pixel 4 works on, isn’t available for commercial use in India.
One of the reasons why Google went for the 60 GHz frequency use is because this band has the rather unique property of mitigating interference caused by other frequencies and also by oxygen and moisture.
In 2016, the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) had urged the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to delicense the 60 GHz band in India. “Most of the countries have already unlicensed 60 GHz band and this band has a good device ecosystem, India should also delicense 60 GHz band immediately and make it available for consumers,” they had said. The 60 GHz band is also known as Wi-Gig band (Wi-Fi at 60 GHz) using IEEE 802.11ad protocol. At present, we have the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum bands being used for commercial and personal Wi-Fi. The 60 GHz Band is already license exempt spectrum band in countries like USA, UK, China, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Australia, Sweden, South Africa, Malaysia and Japan, for instance.
In Europe, the 59 GHz - 66 GHz band has been made available for mobile services while the 59 GHz - 62 GHz band will be reserved for Radio Local Area Network (RLAN). Broadband as well as smart city infrastructure can utilise the 62 GHz - 64 GHz frequency bands.
We could very well see some movement in terms of regulations de-licensing certain spectrum frequency bands for commercial use in the coming months. But for the moment, the Pixel 4 and the Pixel 4 XL aren’t coming to India. And that is the sum and substance of it all.