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What is Google’s Soli chip and how does it work?

Google put a tiny radar on the Pixel 4 and think that's the future of hardware.

what is soli radar chip

If there was one thing that caught people’s attention during Google’s third annual “Made by Google” event, it was its Soli radar chip. Both Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL come with a radar chip, called Soli, located inside the top front bezel. Why would Google put a radar in its Pixel phones? This is everything you need to know about this new technology.

What is Google Soli?

When you think about radar you may think about air-traffic control, aircraft navigation, and marine navigation, which is totally normal because that’s what they widely use it for. But Google think they could use the technology to track micro-motions, which can be used to interact with consumer products.

Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team have been working for the past five years developing the Soli radar chip. The team originally created the chip to work on smartwatches and smart speakers. Years later Soli made its way into the new Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL phones.

what is soli radar chip

In a nutshell, Soli is basically a tiny square chip that can track your motion on various scales. It uses radar to enable different types of touchless interactions with your hands through high-frequency radio waves.

The sensors that Soli uses can track motion at high speed – up to 10,000 frames per second. And surprisingly it does that with great accuracy. Currently, there is no other product on the market with comparable precision and detection range.

The Soli radar chip has its sensors and six built-in antennas incorporated into a compact 6mm x 8mm chip. It has no moving hardware components, unlike traditional radar. Soli has low power consumption, which makes it a very interesting and promising piece of technology. You can rest assured it will go easy on your phone battery life.

How does Soli work?

what is soli radar chip
Courtesy of Google ATAP

Now that you have an idea of what Soli radar is, you must be wondering how does this thing actually work? Soli basically uses electromagnetic waves in a broad beam to detect the size, shape, and velocity of objects. Google is using radar instead of camera like the LG G8 to be aware of you when you’re around the phone.

The folks at Explain that Stuff went to great lengths to explain how radar works. Feel free to check it out if you’re into science.

Google also says that Soli can work though various materials, which means it doesn’t need to see you to actually respond to your hand gestures. Think about silencing a phone call through your pocket or your purse in a quiet meeting or in cold weather. That’s pretty useful and I can see myself taking advantage of that.

Soli also has a 180-degree field of view, like the human view. This means it has spatial awareness everywhere in front of it and off to the sides. Your phone can be upside down and still understand your hand movements. When your phone alarm goes off in the morning, you can simply wave your hand over the screen to silence it. Just be careful to not knock down things on your nightstand.

Soli radar technology uses the 60GHz mmWave frequency band, which doesn’t travel very far. So, be mindful to not have your hand too far away from the radar sensor or it might not pick up the gesture. Once the radio waves hit your hand and reflect back to Soli, Google uses machine learning, raw radar data, and pre-defined interactions to interpret those radar-based gestures.

Motion Sense

Motion Sense as Google has branded this new technology interacts with the user in three different ways.

The first one is presence. Pixel 4 is always aware of its surroundings unless you disable the Motion Sense features in the Settings. That way it monitors your presence and gets ready to respond to any motion. For example, if the Soli radar detects that you are out of range, it will turn off the always-on display for better battery performance.

The second way is reach. The Soli radar chip knows when you’re reaching for the phone, so it lights up the lock screen to display the time and notification icons. It also gets the face unlock sensors ready to unlock instantly. That’s why Pixel 4 face unlock is way faster than Face ID. In fact, Google has called it “the fastest and the most secure face unlock in the market.”

The third way you can interact with the Pixel 4 is though gestures. Google has a set of predefined gestures that Pixel 4 can understand to perform specific tasks. For example, you can wave the palm of your hand over the screen of the phone to dismiss phone calls or snooze alarms. You can also swipe left-to-right or right-to-left to skip songs forward or backward. We can expect Google to add more predefined gestures in the future.

Wrap Up

This is in theory how Motion Sense is intended to work. However, it might be a different story in real life, and only time will tell us how effective and practical this new technology is.

In early impressions videos, many tech YouTubers have a hard time to make Motion Sense works flawlessly, especially with skipping tracks.

We get that. It’s a new technology, and we expect it to have a learning curve. Google will likely push new updates soon to make it look less gimmicky and more useful.

If you found this guide useful, then please share it/or recommend it so your friends can benefit from it too.

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