Google re-made Apple’s 3D Touch on the Pixel using software

A Google algorithm uses machine learning to detect firm presses on the Pixel 4

Pixel 4 long press

If you took the time to read through Google’s blog post about the new functionality rolling out to Pixel phones as part of its latest ‘feature drop,’ you may have noticed an odd line about improved long-press options.

Here’s the quote in full: “Improved long press [sic] options in Pixel’s launcher will get more and faster help from your apps.”

At first glance, it seems odd. Improved long-press options? What on earth does that mean? I had that very conversation with my colleague Brad Bennett yesterday, who wrote up an excellent overview of everything new arriving in the Pixel feature drop. At the time, we decided it likely means long-pressing on an app icon in the Pixel launcher will give you more options.

Unfortunately, we were quite wrong.

The Verge noted that a Google support page for the new features, accessible here, lists the long-press improvements as follows (emphasis mine): “In addition to long press, you can now firmly press to get more help from your apps more quickly.” Well, “firmly press” sounds a lot like the screen can detect the amount of pressure you use when pressing on the screen, which in turn sounds a whole lot like Apple’s 3D Touch feature it introduced with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus and later deprecated with the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max.

Apple replaced 3D Touch with ‘Haptic Touch,’ a glorified long-press with some nice haptic feedback. It’s not clear why Apple decided to ditch it, but The Verge notes that the hardware required for 3D Touch may have been too expensive, thick or complex to justify including in new iPhones when, frankly, Apple could just do the same thing with a simple long-press.

In classic Google fashion, the search giant just did it with software

However, after a back and forth with Google, The Verge says that the company just engineered a press pressure detection algorithm utilizing machine learning. Further, Google said that the update simply accelerates the phone’s response based on the firmness of your press. In other words, pressing hard can make long-press actions happen faster.

I tried this out on my Pixel 4 and long-pressing does seem faster when I press firmly. Unfortunately, it’s not a huge difference and, in most cases, I don’t think people will really notice. Of course, Google says it plans to expand the functionality to more apps “in the near future,” but we don’t know how or when.

The far more interesting aspect of this is that Google used software and machine learning to engineer a feature that Apple built into its phones with hardware. Instead of a hardware layer to detect how hard you’re pressing, the Pixel 4 just figures it out with an algorithm.

According to The Verge, this works by analyzing the differences in how much of your fingertip is registered in a press. Compare a light tap against a firm press on your phone right now. The firm press will likely have more of your fingertip pressing — ‘smushing,’ if you go with The Verge’s very technical term — against the screen. Essentially, Google uses machine learning to model thousands of finger sizes and shapes and combines that with measuring how much screen contact changes over a short period to figure out how hard users press on the screen.

Currently, it isn’t clear how precise the algorithm is or how it stacks up to hardware solutions like what Apple had in the iPhone. However, since Google currently uses the feature just to speed up some long-press features, it also probably doesn’t need to be super accurate.

What does all this mean for me?

Honestly, probably nothing. Currently, the machine learning, algorithmic ‘smush’ detecting software is exclusive to the Pixel 4 line. I assume that, since it’s mostly software, Google will bring it to older Pixels in the near future. However, it’s also possible there’s some hardware-related stuff happening in the background that we don’t know about.

And for Pixel 4 users who have the latest feature drop and, by extension, improved long-pressing, you likely may not notice a difference. At least, not right away. The only noticeable implementation of improved long-pressing has to do with the Pixel Launcher and long-pressing on app icons. Again, Google plans to expand the feature to more places in the future, but that likely means it’ll work in more Google apps.

Part of the reason improved long-press will be so limited is a classic Android problem. The feature exists as part of Android’s ‘Deep Press’ API introduced in Android 10. It’s an API that is only used in certain apps because, as The Verge notes, most Android developers aren’t using standard APIs for things like long-press actions.

Hopefully that will change in the near future, but for now, it means improved long-press is limited to a small number of apps and limited to the Pixel 4, which likely means there are not enough potential users for developers to justify adding support for the feature to their apps.

Source: The Verge