Google is giving Android users hands-free navigation and a way to talk with emojis

Google is rolling out several new accessibility-focused features to platforms like Android and ChromeOS, timed to Global Accessibility Awareness Day, May 16. Leading the long list is the arrival of Project Gameface on Android

If you’re unfamiliar, Gameface is software that lets people use “head movement and facial gestures” to navigate a computer UI. Up until now, the software was used to help people with disabilities play video games among other things. But with its inclusion on Android, those same groups now have a new way to control their smartphone. 

The company states that Gameface supports 52 different facial gestures that can be mapped to specific functions. For example, looking to the left can be used to select items on the screen, while raising your eyebrows can send you back to the home screen. The individual controls depend on how people set up Gameface.

Project Gameface on Android

(Image credit: Google)

Also, it’ll be possible to adjust the sensitivity of a function to establish “how prominent your gesture has to be in order to” register an input. A slight open mouth can be attached to one action, while a wider open mouth can work for another. Over in the bottom corner will be a live camera feed of yourself. Google states their team added the view so users can make sure they’re making accurate facial gestures.

Project Gameface is open-sourced and available for download on Github complete with instructions on how to set it up. Do note it requires the Android Studio developer tool to configure it so you may need someone to help you out.

Notable features

The rest of the features in the update may not be as individually impactful as Gameface, but together, they become greater than the sum of its parts. Google’s Lookout app is receiving a new Find mode to help blind people locate real-world objects across seven different categories. It can tell where the tables are in a restaurant or where the door to the bathroom is. Users have to hold their smartphone in front of them, and through the rear camera, Lookout’s AI will tell you the “direction and distance” of an item or exit. Keep in mind, Find mode is in beta so it may be a little buggy.

Google Maps is seeing a similar upgrade, and it’ll soon provide more details about the area around you. The app will tell you the names of nearby places and how far you need to go to reach your destination.

Lookout app's new Find mode

(Image credit: Google)

Next, Android’s Look to Speak is adding a text-free mode. This mode lets you communicate with the app’s speech function by selecting emojis, symbols, and images. For example, a hand-waving emoji can be used to say “Hello.”

Chromebooks are set to receive their own accessibility patch, too. Google is giving owners a way to increase the size of the mouse cursor, and the screen magnifier tool will follow along with the words as you read them. 

Those are all the major updates coming to the Google platform; however, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Other small upgrades include Google Maps on desktops, pointing out wheelchair-accessible entrances. Everything mentioned here is already live except for the Chromebook changes, which will roll out within the coming weeks.

Google isn't the tech giant celebrating Global Accessibility Day. Apple recently revealed multiple accessibility features including Eye Tracking, Vocal Shortcuts, and Vehicle Motion Cues for its hardware; however, they aren't arriving until later this year. It's unknown exactly when they'll come out, but they'll most likely be made available as a part of iOS 18, VisionOS 2, “and the next version of macOS.”

While we have you check out TechRadar's list of the best Android phones for 2024.

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Google Maps is getting an AI-boosted upgrade to be an even better navigation assistant and your personal tour guide

It looks like Google is going all-in on artificial intelligence (AI), and following the rebranding of its generative AI chatbot from Bard to Gemini, it’s now bringing generative AI recommendations to Google Maps.

The AI-aided recommendations will help Google Maps perform even better searches for a variety of destinations, and the feature is also supposedly able to function as an advisor that can offer insights and tips about things like location, budgets, and the weather. Once the feature is enabled, it can be accessed through the search function, much like existing Google Maps features. Currently, it’s only available for US users, but hopefully, it will roll out worldwide very soon. 

This upgrade of Google Maps is the latest move in Google’s ramped-up AI push, which has seen developments like AI functionality integrated into Google Workspace apps. We’ve also had hints before that AI features and functions were coming to Google Maps – such as an improved Local Guides feature. Local Guides is intended to synthesize local knowledge and experiences and share them with users to help them discover new places.

What we know about how this feature works

Android Police got a first look at how users were introduced to the new AI-powered recommendations feature. A reader got in touch with the website and explained how they were given an option to Search with generative AI in their Google Maps search bar. When selected, it opened up a page that detailed how the new feature makes use of generative AI to provide you with recommendations in a short onboarding exercise. Tapping Continue opens up the next page that provides users with a list of suggested queries like nearby attractions they can go to kill time or good local restaurants.

Similarly to ChatGPT, Google Maps apparently also includes tips toward the bottom of that page to help you improve your search results. Users can add more details to finetune their search like their budget, a place or area they might have in mind, and what the weather looks like when they’re planning to go somewhere. If you select one of these suggested queries, Google Maps will then explain how it would go through the process of selecting specific businesses and locations to recommend.

When the user doesn’t specify an area or region, Google Maps resorts to using the user’s current location. However, if you’d like to localize your results to an area (whether you’re there or not), you’ll have to mention that in your search.

After users try the feature for the first time and go through the short onboarding in Maps, they can access it instantly through the search menu. According to Android Police, Search with generative AI will appear below the horizontal menu that lists your saved location such as Home, Work, and so on.

A promising feature with plenty of potential

Again, this feature is currently restricted to people in the US, but we hope it’ll open up to users in other regions very soon. Along with AI recommendations, Google Maps is also getting a user interface redesign aimed at upgrading the user experience.

While I get that some users might be getting annoyed or overwhelmed with generative AI being injected into every part of our digital lives, this is one app I'd like to try when equipped with AI. Also, Google is very savvy when it comes to improving the user experience of its apps, and I’m keen to see how this feature’s introduction plays out.

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