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Google Pixel camera lead on how AI recreates memories, which are ‘different from reality’

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While Google’s Pixel family has had its ups and downs over the years, the bright spot has always been the camera. In a new interview, Google’s Isaac Reynolds, the head of Pixel Camera, reflects on the Google Camera app over the years, and how AI is changing photos.

Isaac Reynolds is the man in charge of the camera on Pixel products as Google’s Group Product Manager for Pixel Camera. In an interview with Inverse, Reynolds dives into the history of the Google Camera app, and also what’s going on today.

The whole interview is a fun revisit of the past decade, but one point that stood out in particular was Reynolds’ comments regarding AI.

Last year’s Pixel 8 debut brought with it the use of Generative AI to edit photos taken on the device. Between Magic Editor and Best Take, quick and easy edits are more powerful than ever, and that led to some controversy. Many took issue with Google effectively giving users the power to make dramatic and often unnoticeable edits to photos that don’t reflect reality.

As our Abner Li said in the 9to5Google newsletter last year, “human memory is not perfect, and photos are one of the few ways we have to preserve and cement moments.”

But, according to Reynolds, that’s exact the train of thought Google has around these features.

It’s said that the shift in focus of the Pixel camera and these features right now is to recreate and preserve memories, adding that “What’s more real than your memory of it?” Reynolds explains:

[Starting with Pixel 6] you started to see a shift from image processing to image creation, image generation. It’s a shift from, ‘Let’s make images less noisy and sharper to let’s recreate your memories’ because your memories are different from reality, and that’s okay. That’s a perception and human thing. Let’s build for humans.

Your memories are your reality. What’s more real than your memory of it? If I showed you a photo that didn’t match your memory, you’d say it wasn’t real.

Reynolds also goes on to talk about that Google is “not trying to build a simulation” of existing camera functions with the Pixel. He pointed to the Pixel’s portrait mode as one example, with Google choosing to go beyond the typical bokeh of a traditional lens, and as a result of that choice being able to build the feature “without the limitations of a real lens.” Another point was Action Pan, which Reynolds says is an example of Google looking beyond things that were already solvable in hardware, and beyond what people have learned to “tolerate” in cameras.

Beyond physics means having all these capabilities with none of the weird quirks [of camera hardware alone].

If you’re just focused on the things that were solvable in hardware 50 years ago, you’re not going to build the next innovation. We’re big on research, innovation, and technology, and solving customer problems and being helpful. We want to make things that act like they should, like people want them to, not like people have learned to tolerate [in cameras].

For the future of Pixel Camera, the new name applied to the Google Camera app last year, Reynolds says that Google relies pretty heavily on “an amazing amount of studies” giving an idea of what customers what from their cameras. In the case of Magic Eraser, the feature was born out of data showing that people were asking for help removing photobombers and objects from their photos.

And it sounds like editing will continue to be a big focus for the Pixel’s camera going forward, with Reynolds saying:

These days all phones — a basic picture at a bright window and a low-contrast scene — they all look pretty good. Now, people see editing as part of their creative process, how to make a mark. That’s why we’re also going into editors because we recognize that putting it all directly in cameras is not ideal anymore. People want to be able to press the button themselves afterward to make their own decision, not because they’d be unsatisfied with having it straight out of camera, but because they’re putting more of their life and their soul into it.

Reynolds also apparently said that there’s “a long roadmap of camera features they’re considering for future Pixel devices,” but none of these are mentioned in the interview itself. However, the Pixel 8 Pro’s long-overdue “Zoom Enhance” was at least mentioned, though there’s still no timeline on when it will arrive.

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