Chances are you’ve spent much of the past two years sitting at home, plowing through endless days of virtual meetings, staring at your laptop’s webcam and talking into your built-in mic. That means you’ve spent much of the past two years appearing to everyone as a bunch of poorly lit pixels, making it look like you’re screaming from inside a tin can. It’s not your fault: your laptop’s webcam just sucks. And his microphone too. But Google thinks it can solve them both with AI.
Google announced at its annual I/O Developer Conference on Wednesday that its Workspace team is working on a few AI-powered ways to improve your virtual meetings. Most impressive is Portrait Restore, which Google says can automatically improve and sharpen your image even on a bad connection or through a bad camera. Portrait Lighting, similarly, gives you a set of AI-powered controls over how you’re lit. You can’t move the window to your left, Google seems to say, but you can make Google Meet look like it has one to your right as well. And when it comes to sound, Google is rolling out a dereverberation tool meant to minimize the echoes that come from talking into your laptop from a square home office.
Much of the underlying technology here comes from the AI and machine learning work that Google has done with its Pixel phones. These have significantly better hardware to work with than your average laptop webcam, but Prasad Setty, the company’s vice president of digital work experience, says the premise is the same. “We want to make sure that the underlying software does the same thing, that we’re able to use it on a wide range of hardware devices,” he said.
As hybrid and remote working have grown, the Google Workspace team has spent the past two years thinking about how to make work a little easier, Setty said. “We want technology to be an enabler,” Setty said in an interview. “We want it to be useful, we want it to be intuitive, and we want it to solve real problems.” This led the Workspace team to think more about collaboration – hence the meeting tools – but also about how to make asynchronous work more enjoyable.
Google plans to roll out a new tool that generates automatic summaries of Spaces activity, so you can log on in the morning and catch up without having to read hundreds of messages. It’s also launching an automated transcription service for Meet meetings, with plans to eventually summarize those as well.
“We want to be able to help people deal with this information overload,” Setty said, and use AI to do that. He also said that Google thinks a lot about “collaborative fairness” and “representative fairness”, trying to keep everyone on an equal footing, no matter where they are, what technology it uses or how it works. One trick for Google, Setty acknowledged, is to help people without getting too involved, or making employees feel like they’re being watched by Google or their employer. “The way we think about it,” he said, “is that first and foremost we want to empower users. And then give them a choice of how they expose that information to their teams, etc.
After all that time at home, it’s nice to have a few tools to improve your setup a bit, especially ones that don’t require new apps or gear. But as people return to the office, Google has an even bigger challenge: solving the hybrid meeting problem, with some people in a room and some on a screen. It’s going to take a lot more than good lighting and de-reverb.