This is just the start...of The Mother of All Paradigm Shifts.
It will be very, very bit intense.
On the surface, Google Photos has a simple mission: to store all your pictures. Specifically, Google says it wants the service to be a home for all of your photos, and today that mission expanded to encompass the old photos you took on a point-and-shoot back in the '90s. A new app called PhotoScan was just released for iOS and Android, and it promises to make preserving the memories in your old printed photos much easier. That's not all — Google also released a number of updates and refinements to the core Photos app as well. PhotoScan is definitely the star of the show, though. According to engineers from Google who showed the app to the press earlier today, PhotoScan improves on the old "photo of a photo" technique that many now use to quickly get a digital copy of old prints; it's also a lot cheaper than sending pictures out to be scanned by a professional and a lot more convenient and faster than using a flatbed scanner.
When you open up the PhotoScan app, you're prompted to line up your picture within a border. Once you have the picture aligned, pressing the scan button will activate your phone's flash and start the process of getting a high-quality representation of the photo. Four white circles will appear in four different quadrants of the image; you'll be prompted to move your phone over each dot until it turns blue — once all four dots are scanned, the app pulls together the final image.
When moving the phone to scan each dot, the app is taking multiple images of the picture from different angles to effectively eliminate light glare — something Google cited as the biggest culprit that ruins digital pictures of photo prints. In practice, in Google's tightly controlled settings, it worked perfectly. It was easy to see how the lights in the room cast glare on the photo print and equally obvious how the app managed to eliminate it in the final scan. It's a bit of an abstract process to describe, but it worked like a charm. We'll need to test it further outside of Google's demo area, but early results were definitely encouraging.
The app also offers you the ability to adjust the crop to remove any hint of the background surface peeking into the photo, but it's otherwise a pretty minimal experience. Once you're done scanning, the app prompts you to save your scans. They're saved directly to your phone's storage; you can then upload them to Google Photos or the backup service of your choice. Google specifically said that it wanted this app to exist outside of Google Photos so that people could scan images and use whatever service they want to back them up.
Beyond PhotoScan are some noteworthy additions to the proper Google Photos app. The biggest change here is that there are a host of new photo-editing options on board. The Google+ app actually used to have a pretty robust set of editing options, but when Photos was liberated as a standalone app, the editing features were significantly culled.
As of today, Google Photos for both iOS and Android now has a entirely redesigned set of editing tools and filters. The "auto enhance" feature, which tweaks brightness, contrast, saturation and other characteristics of your photo has been improved thanks to the machine learning technology that is at the core of nearly all of Google's products. It can look at a photo and recognize what a photo editor might do to try and improve the image. Auto Enhance has long been a pretty solid feature, so seeing it continue to get smarter and better is definitely a good thing.
If you want to make further adjustments, the simple "light," "color" and "pop" sliders that were in the previous Google Photos app have been greatly expanded. Now, you can tap a triangle next to "light" or "color" to see a view with a host of more granular editing tools like exposure, contrast highlights, saturation, warmth and so on. Those tools aren't right in your face, so people who don't want to dive in can still make adjustments — but those who really want to go deep on editing their pictures will surely appreciate the option. I used to be a big fan of the Google+ photo editing tools so seeing these features come back is very welcome.
Google called out two of those adjustments in particular as things that only it can do with its vast store of photographic information. A new slider called "deep blue" saturates blues in an image like the sky or water to make them more vibrant, and it knows to specifically target those hues while leaving others unchanged. There's also a skin tone filter that can adjust saturation specifically on a subject's skin without altering the rest of the image. Other editing programs have similar filters, but Google says that this one is particularly accurate because of the millions of photos it has analyzed — it just has a better sense of what is skin and what isn't than other editors.
Lastly, Google added 12 new filters (of course it did) that take advantage of machine learning to be a little smarter than the average option. Rather than always slapping a default set of adjustments on a picture, Google Photos will make subtle improvements to the image first — it sounds like a combination of auto enhance as well as a filter. But those enhancements will be optimized to work well with the filter you're adding. It sounds nice, and the filters looked good on the images Google was showing off, but we'll need to spend some time playing around with it to see if they're really any better than what Instagram already offers.
Editing is the main addition to Google Photos, but there are a few other improvements here as well. If you're invited to a shared album, the app will prompt you with suggestions from your own photos to add. It's another place where Google's machine learning comes into play. And the movie maker, which can automatically select related photos and set them to a soundtrack, will be gaining some new event-focused options in the coming months.