Google's researchers just stole I/O with smart pants, a password killer, and the most secure SD card ever

After a fairly straightforward keynote at the Google I/O developer conference, the company indulged its wilder side in a session from the Advanced Technology and Products group.

ATAP, which Google bought as part of Motorola in 2012 and hung onto after flipping the phone maker to Lenovo, bills itself as a small group of "pirates" within the search giant's walls. Under former DARPA director Regina Dugan, the group's projects include a tablet with a 3D-modeling camera, a smartphone with modular components, and tattoos and pills to replace passwords.

At Google I/O, ATAP showed off a bunch of entirely new projects. While it's unclear when any of them will make it to market--if ever--the presentation was a welcome counterpoint to Google's down-to-business keynote. Here's a rundown:

Project Soli: Think of this as a virtual answer to the Apple Watch's digital crown. By stuffing a miniature radar into a smartwatch, Soli can detect precise finger gestures, such as rubbing your thumb and forefinger together. The idea is that users can control scroll bars, knobs, and buttons without even touching the device on your wrist. Google showed a demo of the gesture controls, and plans to release developer tools later this year, but it's unclear when the tech will find its way into actual products.

Project Jacquard: While we've seen smart garments before, Google's high-tech yarn is more conductive than existing materials, and can be woven into any color. This allows garment makers to create a patch of touch-sensitive fabric, which can sense the entire hand as it draws near. Levi's is partnering with Google to create some interactive clothing, though it's unclear when they'll arrive or what the real-world uses might be. (A demo video showed a phone being answered with a sleeve swipe.)

Project Vault: Google has managed to pack an entire computer dedicated to security onto a MicroSD card. Users plug it into phones, tablets, desktops, or Internet of Things devices, and it allows for encrypted data and end-to-end communications. The best way to think of it is as a safe for your house, in which you'd store your most precious belongings. The entire project is open-source, and it'll be targeted at enterprises at first, though there's no word on when businesses can the cards for themselves.

Multi-modal biometrics: ATAP is hoping to kill the password with a system that detects the nuances of a user's voice, typing patterns, facial features, and location. All of these factors feed into a "trust score" that apps can use authenticate. A banking app might require an extremely high score--and therefore, more user input--while less sensitive apps could be accessed with a lower score. The project is still in development, but the goal is to enable it on Android phones in the future.

Project Ara: Google didn't have a lot to say about its modular smartphone project, but did show a working device that recognized a camera module on insertion. It's the first time Google has demonstrated the camera in action. A pilot product run is schedule for later this year in Puerto Rico.


Jared Newman

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