Google is working on a “human presence sensor” Chromebook

Google is working with Antmicro on a “human presence sensor” for future Chromebooks, which could be used for face unlocking or other long-awaited Chrome OS features.

Earlier this year, in a blog post celebrating 10 years of Chromebooks, Google included a little teaser for the future of Chrome OS. It contains the promise of using “sensor technologies for more personalized experiences”.

We continue to find ways to make the Chromebook experience even more useful for everyone. Examples include things like using our artificial intelligence technology to proactively help people, integrating sensor technologies for more personalized experiences, expanding our portfolio of devices with cellular connectivity, and endless work to make your devices work better together.

Fast forward to today, we have found significant amounts of evidence that Google is working on a project called “HPS”, which is short for “Human Presence Sensor”. Over the past year or so, human presence detection has become a cool new feature on Windows laptops, complementing Windows Hello to speed up face unlock by recognizing when you walk.

However, unlike Windows 10 and 11, Chrome OS currently doesn’t offer face unlock on current Chromebooks, making the purpose of a human presence sensor a bit more uncertain.

While a lot of work has been done over the past few months to get this human presence sensor to work on a hardware level, there is so far only one clue as to what Chrome OS is going to do. to do with that. Specifically, if a Chromebook has an HPS, there will be an eye icon in the system tray. For now, while the feature is in early development, the icon is static, but it’s plausible that Chrome OS will display a different icon, depending on whether or not it can detect your presence.

If so, that suggests a few possibilities. On the one hand, on existing laptops with human presence detection, Windows can automatically lock itself if you are away for a while. Or, conversely, HPS could allow your Chromebook to both stay awake and not darken the screen while you’re in front, similar to the “Watch out for screen” feature on Pixel phones.

So where can we expect this human presence sensor to appear first? So far we’ve seen signs that Google is testing HPS functionality on two varieties of Chromebooks. With a few code changes, the “TEST” information indicates that the HPS is used with “Zork,” which is the shared code name for all current Chromebooks with AMD processors.

More directly, with a single code change, Google added sensor support directly to “Brya”, the code name for Chromebooks built with the upcoming 12th generation Intel processors. This change was later “Scrapped” in favor of another less device-specific design, but it still serves as a good clue as to where Google wants to use the sensor.

It appears Google is using specialized hardware to run this human presence sensor, specifically the CrossLink NX LIFCL-17, an FPGA from Lattice Semiconductor. On the manufacturer’s website, there’s even a video demonstrating how to use the hardware to count the number of people visible to a camera.

Another interesting aspect is that Google is developing the human presence sensor in collaboration with Antmicro, a “software-driven technology company that develops open and modern industrial edge and Al cloud systems.” Among other responsibilities, Antmicro appears to work with sensor hardware using open source software where possible. This isn’t the first time that Google and Antmicro have worked together, as the two companies – both founding Platinum members of the RISC-V Foundation – collaborated to create the Coral AI development board, as well as some other projects.

So putting it all together, it looks like Google is preparing some specialized hardware for Chromebooks to use a camera to detect whether or not there is someone in front of the computer. It’s possible that this is part of a larger plan to add Windows Hello-style face unlock to Chrome OS, although it’s hard to be sure at this point. It’s also not yet clear whether Google and Antmicro are developing this for use by any Chromebook maker or for a specific device like a Pixelbook. Either way, the result should be an interesting showcase for the potential of ambient features on Chrome OS.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on Chrome OS’s human presence sensor as it develops. Over time, it should become clearer how this will work and what next Chromebooks to expect.

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