Google has been a pioneer of computational photography in recent years and its latest trick, called ‘Photo Unblur’, might be one of the most impressive tricks yet. A google photos function that will initially be exclusive to the pixel 7 and the Pixel 7 Pro, promises to rescue your new and old snaps from blurry oblivion.
Photo Unblur is an expansion of ‘Face Unblur’, which arrived last year on the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. The latter has quickly become one of the most popular computational photography features since Google introduced ‘Night Sight’ in the Pixel 4 in 2019. But it’s also quite different from Photo Unblur, meaning the two will act as complementary modes for different situations.
Both features use machine learning to enhance your images, but Photo Unblur is designed to enhance shots you’ve already taken with any camera. Meanwhile, Face Unblur is a preventative mode that uses the power of Google’s Tensor chip to detect when someone is moving too fast in your scene. It then automatically takes two photos, which are then combined to give you one sharp, well-exposed snapshot.
So how exactly does Google’s new Photo Unblur mode work without receiving multiple snapshots of the same scene? Google hasn’t fully expanded on its inner workings yet, but we can get a good idea by looking at where it’s coming from.
How does Photo Unblur work?
Photo Unblur hasn’t come completely out of the blue, though Google has yet to expand on its inner workings, it’s likely to build on some existing features we’ve seen in the Google Photos app. And that means it could finally be available on devices beyond the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro.
In 2021, the Google AI Blog (opens in a new tab) described the technology behind two new Google Photos features called ‘Denoise’ and ‘Sharpen’. These are here to help you improve photos that were taken in harsh conditions or with older phones that had noisy sensors or old optics. And these probably form the basis of Photo Unblur.
Photo editors have long had sliders to help you adjust noise and sharpness, but Google’s new technology is much smarter than those. To start with, it analyzes the entire image to calculate noise and blur levels down to the pixel level, regardless of the camera the photos were taken with.
This crucial step allows noise reduction and de-blurring to occur on a more granular level than older techniques, making them less demanding on the processor. And this makes them ideal for running on the device or in the cloud. Once Google has analyzed your image, you can apply its slightly counterintuitive methods to reduce blur and noise.
These are counter-intuitive because they involve pushing your photo in the seemingly ‘wrong’ direction, before returning it to an improvement over the original. To reduce noise, Google combines noisy pixels (effectively reducing image resolution) and then merges them while regenerating finer details. Sharpening works in a similar way, with Google’s algorithms re-blurring the image multiple times in an efficient, phone-friendly process.
So how does Photo Unblur build on these techniques? At this point, we don’t know the details, but a year is a long time in machine learning, and some of Google’s examples during the Pixel 7 launch certainly looked impressive.
The image below, for example, has been impressively cleaned up from its almost unusable origins, which seem to have been caused by light movement and an excessively slow shutter speed.
Because Photo Unblur doesn’t work with two images of the same scene, like Face Unblur, it may struggle to be as powerful as the previous feature, especially for issues caused by motion. But we can’t wait to sample our old photos when the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro launch.
How to use Photo Unblur?
Google again hasn’t revealed the details of how it will use Photo Unblur on the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro just yet. But it has said that with “just a few taps” you’ll be able to remove blur and visual noise in a process that sounds as simple as last year’s. magic eraser (to remove unwanted objects).
This process will take place in the Google Photos app, and Photo Unblur will initially only be available on the PIxel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro. But we expect the technology to be available on all devices running the Google Photos app at a later date.
While Photo Unblur isn’t as automated as Face Unblur, which works during the photo-taking process on phones from the Pixel 6 series and up, it looks like another very simple example of computational photography improving our snaps. Including the old ones that we had canceled.
It seems likely that the two modes are complementary, with Face Unblur turning on (on compatible devices) before taking a photo, and Photo Unblur being useful for old snapshots taken with either camera. We will be testing Photo Unblur very soon and will update this article with all our findings.