Google wants to make photos Google Plus' killer app

May 15, 2013: 1:48 PM ET

Google is betting its algorithms can enhance your snapshots.

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FORTUNE -- Most of us will never be Ansel Adams. But Google is betting that its algorithms can enhance our snapshots with the finesse of a darkroom pro.

On Wednesday, the company unveiled a set of improvements to the photo capabilities of Google+, its social network, that include the automatic refinishing of images. Using the same kind of machine learning algorithms it developed for speech recognition and automatic translation, Google (GOOG) will tweak your photographs' light distribution and contrast; it will soften skin tones, reduce noise from low-light photos and remove red eye.

"We are not trying to make art out of your pictures," says Dave Besbris, vice president of engineering at Google+. "We are trying to make them look better."

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While other software packages, notably Apple's (AAPL) iPhoto, have image-enhancing features, Google says its new capabilities will be applied automatically to all photographs uploaded to Google+, removing a lot of tedious work. It also claims its algorithms deliver results that others can't match. "We're on the cusp of taking things that very very few people can do and doing them almost as well as professional," says Bradley Horowitz, a vice president of product development at Google+. Reviewers and users will have to decide whether such claims live up to scrutiny.

In addition to enhancing images, Google's new photo service will automatically select the best pictures from a mass upload so you don't have to manually find the top 20 pictures from your trip to Asia or your day at the county fair. It removes blurry images and those with poor exposure, and picks what it think is the best among duplicates with slight variations. It can also recognize landmarks, so your sub-par shot of Mt. Everest won't get lost. And it will learn to recognize your affinity for certain people -- say, your children or your girlfriend -- and make sure they end up in the highlighted shots. Of course, you'll be able to adjust the results according to your own preferences, and Google will learn from that.

Google is throwing in a handful of other goodies that it is immodestly calling Awesome. If its software notices a cluster of similar photos taken in rapid succession, it will create an animation, using each image as a frame. It will automatically create panoramas out of photos of adjacent landscapes. And then there's this: If you take multiple photos of a group of people, it will do its best to compose one where everyone is smiling and looking at the camera, by mixing and matching faces from the different shots. "Your darkroom is now a data center," says Horowitz.

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The improvements to the service, which also include tripling to 15GB the free storage for full-sized photos, is part of a set of changes to Google+ that the company is announcing at its I/O conference for developers in San Francisco on Wednesday. The include a revamped news stream with a multi-column design and a new version of Hangouts, which makes it easier to communicate among people.

Google is now claiming 190 million people actively use Google+ a month, and Horowitz said the new changes should dramatically increase the time people spend on the service. Still many skeptics say they see little activity on Google+, especially when compared with social networks like Facebook (FB) and Twitter.

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About This Author
Miguel Helft
Miguel Helft
Senior Writer, Fortune

Miguel Helft is a San Francisco-based Senior Writer at FORTUNE, where he covers Silicon Valley. He joined FORTUNE in August 2011 following a 5-year stint as a reporter at The New York Times covering companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. His knowledge of Silicon Valley and the tech world runs deep. He worked as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems in the late-1980s, and for the past 15 years, he has chronicled major industry events -- from the Microsoft antitrust trial to the dot-com boom and bust - at publications like the Industry Standard, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times. Born and raised in Argentina, Helft emigrated to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, where he earned a BA in Philosophy and a Master's in Computer Science.


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