Google designed the Pixel 6 camera to better represent people with darker skin tones. Is it?

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Google’s artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms have been criticized in the past for the way they treat darker skin tones, including mistakenly labeling photos of blacks as gorillas. The company apologized and said it would fix its software. Now he’s using AI to power what he calls “the world’s most inclusive camera”.

The goal of Real Tone image processing in Google’s new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro smartphones is to “more accurately highlight undertones of various skin tones,” especially darker complexions, according to the website. of the society. The new phones, which start shipping on Thursday, are the first to ship with Real Tone.

We used our Pixel 6 review unit, along with two other competing smartphones from Apple. Inc.

and Samsung Electronics Co.

, to test the functionality with a group of participants ready to photograph. The results were surprising.

The Pixels’ cameras, housed in the prominent bump on the back of the phone, include a series of new updates. A new sensor lets in 150% more light. New editing tools emulate Photoshop expertise, including a Motion mode for action shots and Magic Eraser, which can remove people and objects from scenes. (We used this feature to remove the heads of some wedding guests from a photo of a bride walking down the aisle.)

The Pixel 6’s Motion mode uses machine learning on the device to identify the subject as well as the direction of the action, and adds a blur effect.


Photo:

Nicole Nguyen / The Wall Street Journal

The Pixel has long been full of AI-based tricks capable of photographic magic. This time around, however, Google says it wants to tackle what many describe as racial prejudice in camera technology.

“If I took iPhone photos with friends, I would come out super dark, especially in a group,” said Mark Clennon, a photographer whose photo of a black man standing in front of Trump Tower was one of the most popular images. most memorable from the last Black Lives Matter demos of the year. “If I were the only black person in the photo, I would be largely missing or lost in the shadows.”

“When photography was invented and developed, it was used almost entirely in the West,” said John Edwin Mason, associate professor of African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia. “The technology and practical techniques that photographers developed were to capture the skin tones of whites.”

He added: “Cinema and digital technology are always geared towards justice to white skin tones, with black skin tones being an afterthought.”

Fine tuning

Starting in early 2020, a Google team began adding more images of people of color to the databases training the Pixel camera, including its face detection, said Florian Koenigsberger, who is leading Google’s efforts. in terms of camera and diversity of images. The company also enlisted photographers and other experts to provide feedback on the optimal white balance and exposure settings for darker skin tones, especially in difficult lighting conditions, in photos and videos.

Jasmine Hersey of Fremont, Calif., Preferred the Pixel 6 photo to the iPhone 13 Mini image. “It represents exactly what I look like in the mirror,” she said.


Photo:

Nicole Nguyen / The Wall Street Journal

We showed a series of photos we took of Jasmine Hersey, a director of event operations from Fremont, Calif., To photographers for their take on the metrics Google’s AI was likely tweaking. Images were backlit, which tended to make subjects appear unusually dark and washed out.

“Looks like they’ve compensated for the shadows,” photographer Davey Adesida said, looking at a Pixel 6 photo of Ms. Hersey. “When you factor in the shadows, the picture becomes brighter. Mr Adesida said the Pixel did a slightly better job than the iPhone at capturing Ms Hersey’s skin. “I’m totally ready for these changes, but why haven’t they thought about it until now? ” he said.

In the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, Real Tone is an always-on feature, not something you have to remember to activate. It will also launch as an enhancement to the Google Photos auto-improvement tool in its iOS and Android apps, for any photos uploaded to the service, in the coming weeks.

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“For the most part, smartphones do a great job of recognizing darker skin tones,” said Dario Calmese, the first black photographer to do a cover for Vanity Fair magazine. “However, we are still trying to tweak, rig or hack these systems to make them work for us. There are usually a few more steps.

Apple and Samsung spokespeople say their companies are also looking at a variety of skin tones when developing phone camera systems.

In June, Adobe Inc.

has released preset filters for its photo apps to better handle images of people with dark skin. Break Inc.

is working on a similar project to optimize its camera for darker skin tones, and has integration with the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro which makes the Snapchat camera accessible from phone lock screens.

The real tone in real life

Google, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc.,

says it aims to “represent all people and all skin tones beautifully and accurately.” Curious about how people with different skin tones would feel about the pictures, we asked 18 visitors to San Francisco’s Fisherman Wharf for permission to take their photo, and then asked a question: Which photo of your favorite – you ?

We took their photos outside on a partially cloudy day, with the normal wide-angle lens on three phones: Google’s Pixel 6, Samsung’s Galaxy S21, and Apple’s iPhone 13 Mini. The goal was to capture each phone’s default image, the one you get when you press the shutter button and do nothing else.

Each phone produced a distinct look. Most of those interviewed agreed that the Pixel-shot photo most accurately represented their skin tones. However, all but three of the people preferred their appearance in the Samsung images.

Samsung, the world’s largest smartphone maker, automatically adds skin smoothing effects and tends to produce brighter, more color-saturated photos. IPhone and Pixel photos, while more detailed, tend to look more understated in comparison.

A Samsung spokeswoman said the company was using trends in survey data and research from a team of color scientists to develop its camera.

Jamaul Butts, right, and Summer Butts of Tampa, Fla., Preferred the Samsung image. Mr Butts said he looked the “cleanest” but his skin in the Google image looked more natural. “In photos I often look dark and I have to brighten and change everything. “


Photo:

Nicole Nguyen / The Wall Street Journal

Arely Garcia from Davis, Calif., Right, liked the Pixel photo more than the Samsung image, which she said looked “too edited.” Reginea Jackson preferred the Samsung cliché. She said: “The default for most people with darker skin tones is to take black and white photos so they don’t have to worry about getting the right skin tone. . But I love the color! ‘


Photo:

Nicole Nguyen / The Wall Street Journal

An Apple spokesperson said the company improved the rendering of skin tones with the iPhone 13, especially darker skin tones, and its images of people with darker skin tones looked more natural in different conditions. lighting. She said Apple is committed to making more improvements over time and hopes the industry will continue to improve as well.

Carlo Steven Catabay of Livermore, Calif., Left, and Michelle Bayaua of Antioch, Calif., Said the iPhone and Pixel 6 captured sharper images, but preferred Samsung’s “softer” look. “On social media, people are editing each other anyway,” Ms. Bayaua said.


Photo:

Nicole Nguyen / The Wall Street Journal

Mohamed Sonko, left, and Susan Sonko of Atlanta both preferred the Pixel image because it seemed balanced “with no lighting or special effects.” Mr. Sonko added: “The quality of the new cameras is improving. But the other day when the sun went down, we came out much darker than the fair-skinned people in our group.


Photo:

Nicole Nguyen / The Wall Street Journal

Our survey cannot assess the appearance of people of all shades in all lighting conditions. But it shows that every phone renders skin tones differently, and there is often a difference between accurate depiction and preferred appearance.

Historically, Google Pixel phones have accounted for a fraction of smartphones sold, less than 2% in North America. The company says it is finally seriously considering selling the phones, which have bigger and better screens than their predecessors, as well as a Google-designed chipset optimized for Pixel software.

Google’s phones may not be big sellers, but they are influential: the Pixel line is a showcase for Android, which has over 70% market share globally. Cameras play an important role in the choice of phones, but phone camera marketing has traditionally focused on specifications. By launching Real Tone, Google is highlighting an important way that the largely white tech industry can try to better serve users of color.

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Write to Nicole Nguyen at [email protected] and Dalvin Brown at [email protected]

Corrections and amplifications
Nicole Nguyen of The Wall Street Journal is credited for the blur photo. An earlier version of this article erroneously gave credit to Google. (Corrected October 25)

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