The Google Pixel squeeze for the assistant was a button without a button

The Pixel 2 is a nearly five-year-old phone, but it has introduced a feature that I miss more and more with each passing year. It was called Active Edge and it let you call up Google Assistant by simply giving your phone a squeeze. In a way, it’s an unusual idea. But it actually gave you something that modern phones sorely lack: a way to physically interact with the phone to achieve something. done.

Looking at the sides of the Pixel 2 and 2 XL, you won’t see anything to indicate that you are holding something special. Sure, there’s a power button and volume rocker, but otherwise the sides are scarce. Squeeze the phone’s bare edges tightly, however, and a subtle vibration and animation will play, as the Google Assistant opens from the bottom of the screen, ready to start listening to you. There is no need to wake the phone, long press any physical or virtual button or touch the screen. Squeeze and start talking.

Looking at the sides of the Pixel 2, you’d never say it’s actually a button.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

We’ll talk about how useful it is in a second, but I don’t want to gloss over how good it is. Phones are rigid objects made of metal and plastic, yet the Pixel can tell when I’m applying more pressure than it does just by holding it. According to an old iFixit teardown, this is made possible by some strain gauges mounted inside the phone that can detect the slight bending of the phone case when you squeeze it. For the record, this is a change my human nervous system is unable to pick up on; I can’t say the phone is folding.

If you found Active Edge useful it probably was because you liked using Google Assistant, as illustrated by this Reddit thread. Personally, the only time I really used a voice assistant every day was when I had the Pixel 2 because it was literally close at hand. The thing that made it Like this convenient is that compression has always worked in practice. Even if you were in an app that hid the navigation buttons or your phone screen was completely off, Active Edge still got the job done.

While that made it extremely useful for looking up fun facts or doing quick calculations and conversions, I’d say Active Edge could have been much more useful if I had been able to remap it. I enjoyed having the assistant, but if I was able to turn on my flashlight with a squeeze, I would have instant access to my phone’s most important functions no matter what.

This version of the feature actually existed. The HTC U11, which came out a few months before the Pixel 2, had a similar but more customizable feature called Edge Sense. The two companies worked together on the Pixel and Pixel 2, which explains how it ended up on Google’s devices. In the same year, Google bought HTC’s mobile division team.

Active Edge wasn’t Google’s first attempt to provide an alternative to using the touchscreen or physical buttons to control the phone. A few years prior to the Pixel 2, Motorola allowed you to open the camera by turning the phone and turning on the flashlight with a karate shot, not unlike how you mixed music on a 2008 iPod Nano. The camera shortcut occurred during the relatively short period of time that Google owned Motorola.

As time has gone by, however, phone makers have moved further away from being able to access some essential features with physical action. Take my daily driver, an iPhone 12 Mini, for example. To start Siri, I have to hold down the power button, which has become a liability since Apple got rid of the Home button. To turn on the flashlight, which I do several times a day, I have to wake the screen and tap and hold the button in the left corner. The camera is slightly more comfortable, being accessed with a left swipe on the lock screen, but the screen still needs to be on for this to work. And if they really are using phone, the easiest way to access the flashlight or camera is via Control Center, which involves swiping down from the top right corner and trying to select a specific icon from a grid.

In other words, if I look up from the phone and notice my cat doing something nice, it may very well have stopped when I open the camera. It’s not that it’s hard to start the camera or turn on the flashlight, it’s just that it could be a lot more convenient if there was a dedicated button or squeeze gesture. Apple also briefly recognized this when they made a battery case for the iPhone that had a button to launch the camera. A few seconds saved here or there add up over the life of a phone.

Just to prove the point, here’s how fast the camera booting is on my iPhone compared to the Samsung Galaxy S22, where you can double-click the power button to launch the camera:

Gif showing the camera of an iPhone launched with the connection to the Control Center and the camera of a Samsung S22 launched by pressing a button.  The S22 launches its camera a second or two faster than the iPhone.

There is less need to think when you can just press a button to launch the camera.

Neither phone handles screen recording and camera preview very well, but the S22 opens the camera app before I’ve even tapped the camera icon on the iPhone.

Unfortunately, even Google’s phones are not immune to the disappearance of physical buttons. Active Edge stopped appearing on the Pixel 4A and 5 in 2020. Samsung also dropped a button it once included to summon a virtual assistant (which, tragically, was Bixby).

There have been attempts to add virtual buttons that are activated by interacting with the device. Apple, for example, has an accessibility feature that lets you tap the back of your phone to launch actions or even your mini programs in the form of shortcuts, and Google has added a Pixel-like feature. But to be completely honest, I didn’t find them reliable enough. A virtual button that barely works is not a great button. Active Edge worked pretty much every time for me, despite having a sturdy OtterBox on my phone.

It’s not like the physical controls on phones have completely disappeared. As I mentioned earlier, Apple lets you launch things like Apple Pay and Siri through a series of taps or presses on the power button, and there’s no shortage of Android phones that let you launch the camera or other apps by double-pressing the power button. .

I would say, however, that one or two shortcuts assigned to a single button cannot give us easy access to everything we have. should have easy access to. To be clear, I’m not asking for my phone to be absolutely covered in buttons, but I think big manufacturers should take a cue from phones of yesteryear (and, yes, smaller phone makers – I see you Sony fans) and bring back at least one or two physical shortcuts. As Google has shown, this doesn’t necessarily require adding an additional physical key that needs to be waterproofed. Something as simple as a press can be a button that allows users to quickly access the functions they (or in the case of the Pixel, Google) deem essential.

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