Google Allo’s latest feature takes aim at Snapchat’s Bitmoji by transforming your selfies into personalised stickers.
From today, when you take a photo of yourself on Google Allo the Android app will combine the tech giant’s neural networks with the work of artists to turn your snap into a unique sticker pack. The feature will roll out to iOS “soon”.
“The traditional computer vision approach to mapping selfies to art would be to analyse the pixels of an image and algorithmically determine attribute values by looking at pixel values to measure colour, shape, or texture,” explained Allo’s expressions creative director Jennifer Daniel.
“People today take selfies in all types of lighting conditions and poses…and this creates a complex task for computers.”
To account for this, Google developed an algorithm to identify features similar to the way humans do, rather than using the traditional approach of hand coding. Rather than run the data through a new neural network, the team ran experiments, similar to DeepDream, on Google’s existing, more general-purpose computer vision neural networks.
Google then worked with a team of illustrators to design hairstyles, face shapes and designs that could be matched with those in the selfies. Any that were underrepresented were manually created and fed into the neural network.
Similar to WhatsApp, you’ll need to allow the app certain permissions to your location, camera roll, contacts and keyboard. You will then be prompted to input your phone number if you’re using the iOS version. A code will be sent via text message to confirm your identity.
By comparison, the Android app detects your number automatically and activates your account.
You will then be asked to add an optional selfie to your account, as a profile picture. If you’d rather not, this can be skipped – similar to how setting up a Snapchat account works.
Your first conversation will be had with Google Assistant during which more permissions will be asked for.
What is Google Assistant?
Google Assistant works in both a private chat on a user’s device and can be used in conversations between two people when a message says @google.
Google’s Assistant will learn how you prefer to reply and tailor the responses to make them more personal.
But beyond basic questions is a deeper level of integration.
Asking Allo’s Assistant to show emails from ‘Victoria’ will show messages from that individual; asking for the weather prompts a question on whether it should provide updates on a daily basis. Each level of the AI’s knowledge is almost always followed by a deeper question or follow-up – when the end of a sequence is reached, a thumbs up or down emoji option is given. If selected, the negative thumb allows feedback to be given to the app.
The Allo assistant has, so far, been able to answer most questions asked by WIRED. When asking if climate change is real, the app responds with a graph from a top Google result but also gives potential follow-up questions (“Is global warming caused by humans”/”Is global warming a myth?”/”Do scientists agree on climate change?”). Asking to be shown pictures of the Colosseum brings up the ancient monument.
In the messaging app, the intelligence can tap into user data to provide answers to common questions found on Google, provide calendar updates, locate businesses, translate text to other languages, and also save information.
Google Allo’s messages, stickers and emoji
As well as the Assistant, Google Allo – which was first announced in May at the firm’s I/O developer conference – also allows for group conversations, predictive suggestions based on user messages, stickers and the ability to draw onto photos (both of which are prominent in Instagram and Snapchat).
To add media to a message, tap the “+” button to the left of the input box and choose to share an image, take a picture, share your location, send stickers of post emoji.
There are already a number of stickers available, including Sloths, but pressing the plus sign next to the sticker icon lets you download more stickers.
Dragging the send button allows messages and emoji to be enlarged or shrunk; a tool designed to provide emphasis, much like Apple’s iOS 10 animations and effects. And, like Snapchat and Instagram Stories, photos can be annotated and drawn upon using one finger plus a colour pallet.
Once the selfie stickers roll out to your device, take a selfie in the usual way by pressing the camera button in a chat window. You will then be given the option to annotate and type on the photo as well as turn it into a personalised sticker set.
The Google Allo features don’t offer more than other messaging apps but that isn’t the sell for Allo – the app is more than a way to communicate with friends, it’s billed as one of Google’s first mass integrations of a dedicated AI assistant.
Add GIFs to Allo
The most recent addition to Allo is a bot called Lucky, believed to be named after Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” feature. Lucky lets you type a word or phrase to get a relevant GIF.
The bot is similar to those used by Slack and tagging @lucky in a message thread translates any thread into GIF form.
Google Allo and privacy
For Google Allo to be the most useful, users do need to trade one important thing with Google: access to data. Within minutes of setting up the app it asks for access to contacts, locations, and pictures.
For the AI to operate in the best manner it needs access to this data. Allo can’t tell you where the nearest pub is without knowing your location. Although, for existing Google users much of this will already be shared with the firm.
For the privacy conscious, Allo can also operate with end-to-end encryption activated. Google borrows its own Incognito term for this, but uses Open Whisper Systems code – the one recommended by Edward Snowden and used to encrypt the entire WhatsApp network by default.
Beyond Allo: what will Google Allo’s Assistant be used for?
Allo is just the start for Google’s Assistant. In press materials, the firm calls it a “preview” of what is to come.
One of its main applications (which has been publicly stated by the firm) is for integration into the Google Home device. Planned for a release later this year, and possibly as soon as Google’s October 4 press event, Home is a rival to Amazon’s popular Echo speaker. Google’s offering – a small speaker – even looks similar to the one from the online retailer.
Home is an internet-connected speaker and personal assistant. Based on the AI assistant built into Google Allo, it could make Home a challenger to the Echo. All of the communications in Google Allo work in a natural way and the app understands some errors (if a question mark is missed from a query it still provides an answer).