Hands-on: New photo features in Google+ challenge Facebook and Twitter
Google put a new spin on its Google+ social network with a no muss, no fuss set of automatic photo enhancement features. After setting up a few enabling controls, Google will curate, auto enhance, and attach special effects to your images.
Updates to the Google+ service focus on photos for obvious reasons: Photos are the centerpiece of social networks, and Google wants a piece of that action—or to but it more succinctly, it wants to usurp as much of the Facebook and Twitter photographic advantage as possible. Google took the occasion of its I/O developer conference to inaugurate a number of initiatives to boost its photo sharing service and make it more compelling: the four major enhancements are Auto Backup, Highlights, Auto Enhance, and Auto Awesome. I took the new baby for a spin and lived to report the results.
The thing to remember about Highlights, Auto Enhance, and Auto Awesome is that they are enabled by default, so that there's no formal interface to evoke them. However, you can turn off Auto Enhance in order to see the original version of a photo. And you can choose to share whichever version you want.
When Auto Backup is enabled, any pictures you shot with your iOS or Android phone are automatically backed up to the Google+ service and available for your eyes only when you sign into your account. From there, you can choose who you want to share them with.
After downloading the Google+ app on the iPhone, it takes a couple of steps to enable the Auto Backup feature. This is easy to set up and works swiftly and flawlessly. Every shot I took on my iPhone showed up on Google+ within a few minutes.
You can use it to back up an infinite number photos at 2048-pixel tablet resolution for free, or upload full resolution images to the free 15GB of Google Drive storage.
A simple Web-based interface lets you batch upload photos and videos from your hard drive or from the mobile app for iOS or Android. To really do justice to the Highlights feature, you'll want to upload an entire shoot, otherwise the service doesn’t have enough to images to choose from. Trying to upload hundreds of images at a time seemed to stall the system at first, but a more spritely 64 images uploaded promptly. For any image uploaded to your album, you can write a caption and immediately share it if you choose.
How does Google choose which photos to highlight? A new Google+ algorithm chooses the best images by eliminating those containing blur, poor exposure, duplicates, and recognizing famous landmarks and smiling people. It also recognizes your family and other important people in your life.
The Highlights feature worked as expected, singling out some 24 of the 64 images I uploaded from my trip to Death Valley.
This feature is automatic and needs no input from you. However, when you view a photo, it will display an icon reminding you that it has been enhanced, and lets you revert back to the original if you choose. Hitting the Edit button at the top takes you to Google's Creative Kit, which allows you to hand pick further edits and special effects for the photo.
The algorithm corrects overall tonal distribution, adds skin softening, removes red eye if necessary, sharpens and reduces noise, improves structure, corrects white balance, adds a vignette, and more.
This set of special effects is also enabled by default. As your images are uploaded into Google+, the photo algorithm chooses which effect to use and how it will handle the effect. For example, if photos were shot with overlapping edges, the utility automatically constructs a panorama. If there's a series of shots with similar backgrounds, the Mix feature will present you with a photobooth type collage. If you've taken a series of at least five photos in succession, Auto Awesome will stitch these photos together into a repeating short animation.
By merging differently-exposed images together and uploading them, Auto Awesome will create an HDR image. If you've taken group photos, Auto Awesome will choose the best shots of each person in your image and merge them into one optimal photo where everyone looks their best.
In practice, Auto Awesome is the glitchiest feature in the lot. Often, it did not recognize photos with overalpping borders as a pano, while varying exposures did not move it to HDR at all times. Sometimes it recognized a series of images as a GIF, other times not. It took a bit of paying around to see the results of that feature.