The most exciting update in Google's new Pixel phone is a feature that has flopped in the past

Pixel 4Drew Angerer/Getty Images

  • Google's Pixel 4 comes with radar technology known as Soli, which lets you operate the device using touch-free gestures and can sense when you're nearby.
  • While Google's approach may be different, it's far from being the first company to add motion controls to smartphones. Companies like LG and Samsung have done so in the past, but neither of these firms have succeeded in making motion-detection feel truly useful.
  • Whether or not Google's motion-sensing features will actually provide value to the user experience remains to be seen. But it could be laying the breadcrumbs for a future in which our phones become more intelligent about their surroundings.
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At first blush, Google's new Pixel 4 may look and feel a lot like other smartphones.

It has many of the features that have become the norm for today's mobile devices, such as a large, vibrant screen and an advanced camera system made up of more than one lens.

But just above the display there's a critical component not found on any other phone: a compact radar system known as Soli, which enables the Pixel 4 to understand when you're nearby and respond to touchless gestures. Google's Advanced Technology & Projects group has been refining the technology for five years, making it small enough and powerful enough to work in a device like the Pixel 4.

Other than the Pixel 4's improved camera, the phone's new Soli-powered Motion Sense features were the centerpiece of the search giant's presentation about its new smartphone on Tuesday. With Google's Soli technology, you'll be able to skip songs on apps like Spotify and YouTube and snooze alarms just by waving your hand. Two new apps - "Pokémon Wave Hello" and "Headed South" - also take advantage of the tech, making it possible to interact with or control game characters with a wave.

Read more: Google just laid out its vision for the future of the smartphone with its new Pixel 4 - here's how it compares to the iPhone 11

And while Google's approach may be unusual, it's far from being the first company to add motion controls to smartphones. Companies like LG and Samsung have done so in the past, but neither of these firms have been successful.

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