Google looks to AI interactions and cats to power its latest AR feature

Of all the features and hardware that dropped at Google’s event earlier this month, one that felt particularly glossed over was Playground, the new augmented reality mode that’s arrived on the Pixel 3 camera. For a company that has been investing in phone-based AR for quite a while, it launched rather quietly and in a fairly hidden spot amongst other photo modes in the Pixel 3 camera app.

I got to venture over to the company’s offices to take a closer look at the cute little stickers and 3D character “Playmojis” and hear how Google is aiming to ensure that the AR world has a deeper understanding of your environment than just its geometry.

Google has long flirted with letting users capture moments that bring virtual characters into their daily life. Since the days of Project Tango, Google has been working to create characters that can live in the virtual space at appropriate scale, responding to boundaries of the room and different lighting conditions. With this release, the company challenged themselves on interactivity, trying to get the 3D characters to not only react to what was happening with other Playground objects in the space, but with elements of the real world, as well, so when you smile, the virtual character posed behind you can toss up a grin as well.

“We thought, let’s think deeper into it and start making these stickers smarter and see if we can actually use AR and machine learning to help users be more creative,”¬†Joe Bose, a product manager at Google working on AR, told TechCrunch.

Interactivity is ultimately what makes Playground different from the one-off AR sticker packs Google has dropped with past partnerships with Star Wars or Stranger Things.¬†Playground also showcases a wider swath of Google’s AR efforts than just placing objects into environments. There’s some clear work being done by the live image recognition engine that powers Google Lens, bringing about a cool feature that suggests stickers and playmojis for you to drop into the world. If your camera is focused on a sunny meadow, Playground suggests some more nature-centric AR stickers; when a dog jumped into view while I was demoing, some pooch recommendations popped up.

For now there’s a hefty amount of stickers and some Marvel superheroes and dogs. As part of National Cat Day today, Google is bringing some AR kitties into the action, I’m told, which by all accounts should more than ensure the feature’s success — or at least boost sharability — among lovers of cats real and virtual.

For now Playground is just available on the Pixel 3, but the team is looking to bring the feature to past Pixel phones in the near future.

In the end, Playground is a hilarious amount of sophisticated tech just to add some added pizzazz to your photos, but that’s augmented reality tech in a snapshot. The bullish folks may say it represents a new computing platform, but in 2018 it’s ensuring that your cat has a virtual pal in your photos and videos.