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Google Motion Stills review: make augmented reality GIFs with your Android phone!

Some days ago, Google added an augmented reality feature to its Motion Stills experimental app and of course I decided to give it a try.

I admit I had no idea of what Google Motion Stills app was: it seems that it is an app for smartphone from Google Research labs that makes you record short videos with some very simple effects (like velocity change or ping-pong loops) and then share it with your friends as videos or GIFs. The app is very very simple and honestly until the addition of the AR features was of no interest to me.

But this week they added the new AR feature. It lets you put inside your world some simple low-poly animated models (that seem created with Google Blocks). They are just a few: a dinosaur, a gingerbread man, an alien, a robot, a chicken and the world globe. So, you frame some planar surface with your phone, tap on the screen to insert the model and bam… you’ve added it to that surface in AR! This way you can add a funny grey robot on your floor and then see it from all the possible angles.

After you’ve placed a model, you can:

  • move it by tapping another part of the screen to position the 3d element on that element of the real world;
  • zoom it by using two fingers and make the classical zoom gesture on the screen;
  • rotate it by using two fingers and performing a rotational gesture on the screen;

Its interface is very simple and intuitive, as the whole app. To record the video, you’ve just to tap a little circle to start the recording and then tap it again to stop it. After that, Motion Stills will store your augmented reality short movie inside its internal gallery and then will let you share it easily as a GIF or a video. It will handle all the encoding stuff for you… you have just to tap on your screen.

The funny thing about its AR feature is that you can position these elements really everywhere: it is nice putting them on planar surfaces, but it is surely funnier to put them onto other people! Today I’ve put the chicken with the eating animation on my father’s head and then I shared it with family… it has been amusing. I’ve also put the world in my hands… the world is mine!!!

You may think that this app works only on ARCore-enabled phones, but actually, this is not true! Motion Stills augmented reality features work on every Android phone: I’ve tested it with my Samsung Note 4 that runs Android 6 (that wasn’t even able to run the ARCoreForAll hack) and it worked like a charm… of course the newer the device, the better.

This means that, without all the calibration features offered by ARCore devices, the tracking is only of a decent quality: as you can see from the above pictures, there are various issues, like:

  • The AR models sometimes slide on the surfaces;
  • Other times the tracking is completely lost;
  • Other times the detected inclination angle of the surface is completely wrong, so the model is inclined in a wrong way, as Michael Jackson when dances Smooth Criminal.

But if the surface had a good texture and the lighting was good, it happened sometimes to me that the tracking was incredibly stable and my jaw dropped. What you have to avoid are particularly monochrome surfaces or surfaces with a recurring pattern: for instance, the keyboard of my laptop is a terrible place for AR augmentations. The ideal is a planar surface with various different objects around it (like, for instance, your desk) so that the tracking can work more reliably. The reason is all in the quality and the uniqueness of the features that the tracking algorithm can find inside the scene (if you’re in computer vision, you know what I’m talking about).

Furthermore, I was surprised to see that somewhat it worked on everything: I’ve been able to put augmented reality models on heads of people, hands, legs, feet, my PC mouse and even the cap of a water bottle. That’s very powerful and enables, as I’ve said, a lot of funny possibilities. The only problem is that the available 3D models are too few and there’s no way to add other ones. I really hope that they’ll add soon the possibility to import a model from Google Blocks with Google Blocks APIs.

(This alien seems that wants to rule the world from the cap of this bottle…isn’t it?)

I think that this little experimental addition to Motion Stills may be part of some experimentations by Google to try to enable AR on every kind of phone, even the non-ARCore ones. This would let ARCore become a platform that works very well on the enabled phones but that someway works even on all the Android phones. This way, during this transition moment when the world is still full of old Android devices, the ARCore apps could have an enormous market to start with and not only some million devices. There are apps, like this one, where an exact tracking is not necessary: so a more open augmented reality platform would let us developers create interesting AR experiments. But all this paragraph is just a speculation of mine, I would love if that were true.

I had surely fun playing around with this little app, by adding models and creating Augmented Reality Gifs on my phone in an incredibly easy way and then sharing them with my friends. I advise you to give it a shot by downloading it from the Play Store. And then let me see all your AR creations here in the comments or on my social media channels!

(Header image by Google Research)

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Google Motion Stills review: make augmented reality GIFs with your Android phone!


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