Google: Fix your faulty Webcam with Great AI

It’s not your fault: your laptop’s webcam stinks. And so does its mic. But Google believes it can fix them both with AI.

You’ve spent much of the previous two-plus years sitting at home, cycling through continuous virtual meetings gazing into your laptop’s webcam, and talking into your built-in mic.

You’ve expended much of the last two-plus years appearing like a mushy pile of poorly lit pixels, sounding like you’re screaming from inside a tin can.

Google declared on Wednesday at its annual I/O developer conference that its Workspace team has been performing on a couple of AI-powered ways to improve your virtual meetings. The most amazing is Portrait Restore, which Google says can automatically enhance and point your image even over a bad connection or via a lousy camera.

Portrait Lighting, similarly, offers you a set of AI-based controls over how you’re lit. For example, you can’t drive the window off to your left, Google says, but you can create Google Meet to look like you had one to your right.

And when it comes to sound, Google’s moving out a de-reverberation tool suggested minimizing the echoes that come from speaking into your laptop from a boxy home office.

Much of the underlying tech here comes from the AI and machine learning work Google has done with its Pixel phones. Of course, those have substantially better hardware than your average laptop webcam, but Prasad Setty, VP of digital work experience, said the regulation is the same. “We want to ensure that the underlying software does the same thing, that we can employ it across a wide range of hardware appliances,” he said.

As hybrid and remote work have grown, the Google Workspace team has spent the last couple of years considering doing work a little easier, Setty said. “We desire technology to be an enabler,” Setty said. “We want it to be helpful, we want it to be intuitive, and we like it to solve real problems.” That led the Workspace team to think more about collaboration — hence the meeting tools — and making asynchronous work more palatable.

Google’s planning 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 reading hundreds of messages. It’s also launching a computerized transcription service for Meet meetings, with plans to summarize those eventually.

“We want to help people handle this information overload,” Setty said, and use AI. He also said Google’s thinking a lot about “collaboration equity” and “representation equity,” trying to help keep everyone on an equal playing field, whether they are, what tech they’re using, or how they’re working.

One trick for Google, Setty acknowledged, is helping people without getting too involved or making employees feel like either Google or their employer is watching them. “The way we think about it,” he said, “is we want to empower users first and foremost. And then give them like the choice of like how they expose that information to their teams and so on.”

After all this time stuck at home, it’s nice to have a few tools to make your setup work a little better, especially ones that don’t require new apps or gear. But as people go back to the office, Google has an even more significant meeting challenge ahead: solving the problem of the hybrid meeting, with some people in a room and others on a screen. That’s going to take a lot more than good lighting and de-reverb