Pixel 2’s dormant photo-improving Visual Core chip is now active

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL’s Visual Core, a custom system-on-chip (SoC) that’s sat dormant in Google’s flagship smartphone since its release back in October of last year, will soon come to life.

Until now, the custom image processing unit (IPU) — a first for Google when it comes the company creating its own smartphones — has just been hanging out, takinfg up space in the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.

That’s set to change, now. Google has revealed plans to activate the Pixel 2’s Visual Core processor. What remains unclear is why the Visual Core wasn’t already up and running when the Pixel 2 was first released.

“As you might imagine, building hardware takes quite awhile. So yes, we have been working on this for a long time,” said Ofer Shacham, engineering manager for the Pixel Visual Core, emphasizing that Google needed third-party developers to integrate the photography-focused SoC’s unique capabilities in their apps first, before activating the hardware.

Even without the Pixel Visual Core though, the Pixel 2 features one of the most well-regarded smartphone cameras out there right now.

Google says that through computational photography and machine learning — which powers the tech giant’s unique HDR+ technology — the Pixel Visual Core improves the image quality of third-party apps by allowing users to shoot high-quality photos directly in applications.

This means that once the Pixel Visual Core is active, HDR+ will be directly accessible through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Google says that this feature was previously only available directly through the Pixel’s stock camera app, forcing those who wanted to take advantage of HDR+, to take a photo with the standard Pixel camera app. To be clear, the Pixel 2 was already capable of HDR+ prior to the Visual Core’s activation, but only through the stock camera app.

Pixel Visual Core

While not a monumental change, this does make the process of quickly shooting photos and posting them to various social media platform that much easier. There are other, arguably more interesting benefits that come from the Visual Core Chip coming alive, too.

Because HDR+ is no longer being handled by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor inside the Pixel 2, Google says that the smartphone should also now feature improved battery life and overall performance.

But what is HDR+ and why should you even care about it? Think of the technoloy as an upgraded version of standard HDR: Instead of just three photos, HDR Plus shoots up to 10 images that are all underexposed, then “chops them into little bits.” This has a significant impact on low-light performance, according to Issac Reynolds, Google’s Pixel Camera project manager.

pixel core

“Once you take those 10 equally underexposed photos, we average them together… It’s like taking a very long exposure — like a one-second exposure — but because we’ve chopped it up into 10 short ones, it looks very sharp,” says Reynolds.

The Visual Core was first activated in the most recent developer preview of Android 8.1. Now, the chip’s functionality is rolling out to all users. While Google says the update is coming as part of the Pixel 2’s February security update, it could take a number of days (even a week in some cases) for it to hit your particular device, depending on carrier approval.

Looking to the future, Schaham isn’t ruling out utilizing the Pixel Core for other purposes, though won’t confirm if the custom silicon is capable of handling processes that aren’t photography related.

“This of course lends itself to other things that we might plan to do in the future,” says Schaham.

Pixel Visual Core

This strategy also makes sense given Google recently hired Manu Gulati, an Apple micro-architect who worked on the company’s chip development for almost 8 years.

A dozen SoC-related jobs have also been posted to Linkedin by Google, including ‘hardware engineer’, ‘mobile SoC architect,’ “mobile SoC CPU architect,’ and ‘Mobile SoC Memory Architect.’

While it’s likely the changes the Visual Core makes to the overall performance and experience the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL offers the end-user, this could be the first step in a new direction for Google’s hardware development strategy.

Google also says that new augmented reality stickers themed around winter sports are on the way later this week just in time for the Winter Olympics.

Image credit: Google 

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