Google Used Machine Learning to Add Apple-Style 3D Touch to Pixel Phones
Google started rolling out its latest Pixel “feature drop” yesterday, which includes new capabilities exclusive to Google’s Pixel phones. The headlining additions include scheduled dark them and new emoji, but Google also slipped an interesting machine learning accomplishment into the new update. Pixel phones now have Apple-style 3D Touch capabilities, but they do it via software instead of hardware.
Apple launched 3D Touch (initially called Force Touch) back in 2014 on the iPhone 6S. 3D Touch allows Apple (and developers) to trigger different actions based on how hard the user presses the screen. Apple accomplishes this with a network of actuators on the back of the touchscreen. The piezoelectric effect from pressing on the screen tells the system when someone is tapping versus pressing harder, and Apple’s software turns that into different inputs.
Clearly, an OTA update can’t add actuators to Google’s Pixel screens, but Google managed to do something similar with machine learning. Capacitive touchscreens don’t detect force — they just understand a touch versus no touch. However, the signal from a tap can vary based on how much of your finger comes in contact with the screen, and that’s how Google simulated the “firm touch” feature of the latest Pixel update.
If you tap on the screen normally, nothing changes. If you press harder, more of your finger will come in contact with the screen. Google used machine learning to characterize how the touch input changes when people press harder on the screen. This involved modeling thousands of finger sizes to accurately determine when someone is attempting a firm touch.
Currently, firm touch is an alternative to a long-press, which is common across Android to accessing context menus and other features. A firm touch is simply a faster way to do the same thing. It’s possible Google could make this a feature with specific functionality, but not all device makers even use the same touchscreen interaction APIs. So, this may remain a Pixel-only feature, and that means few developers would be interested in creating custom features.
The March Pixel update is still rolling out to users. Google says it should be available for everyone in the next several weeks. It’s taking this update a bit slower than most monthly patches because there are so many functional alterations. If you don’t want to wait, you can sideload the update with files from Google’s developer site.