Google is a camera. Though I admit, calling the pocket-sized Clips just a camera feels incomplete. Yes, it has a lens and a battery and it captures videos, but everything else about it is unique. You don’t tap a shutter button or give it any command to take a picture or shoot a video. You just turn it on (by twisting its lens like a knob), set it down, and point it at whatever humans or pets are nearby. Clips has a computer chip inside with a simplified version of Google’s computer-vision code on board, and the device uses this chip to identify only the most savory moments of what it’s seeing. Point it at the kids for five minutes while they dance and play and run around, then open the app on your phone to find a half-dozen or so seven-second clips, ready to be shared with the rest of your family.
So it’s part camera, part machine-learning AI computer, part Vine-in-a-box. It all adds up to a lot of fun, especially for people with young kids who like to share cute videos of their offspring—two populations that, I’d guess, almost wholly overlap.
In order to decide whether Google Clips ($249) is for you, we should talk about what it is not. This isn’t a replacement for your smartphone camera, or even for your point-and-shoot. The camera on your phone captures way better pictures and videos than this thing, and Clips doesn’t have a microphone, so it’s no good for filming your tyke belting out “A Whole New World.”
It’s also not an action camera. It’s not waterproof or ruggedized, and it doesn’t do epic slo-mo shots. It’s not really a wearable, either. It comes with a soft case that has a built-in clip you can attach to your shirt, but when you do that, you end up with terrible videos. It performs much better if you set it down on a table or clamp it to something stationary. It’s not meant to be used as a security camera or a baby monitor. It’s sole purpose it to intentionally to capture a moment. You turn it on when you expect something noteworthy will happen. In fact, it even turns itself off if it doesn’t see movement, action, or displays of emotion. Point it at a sleeping baby, and it’ll go to sleep too.
The last thing Clips is not, very importantly, is a spying device for Google’s ad business. There’s no cloud service secretly crunching raw video streams of your two-year-old to see which brand of peanut butter pretzels are on the table. All of the image analysis happens on the camera, a move that’s kind of genius. Google has shrunk down its AI code for recognizing images and squeezed it onto a chip. All of the decisions about which videos are keepers are made inside the camera. It serves these chosen clips to you in the companion app, which connects wirelessly. The app shows you a scrollable feed of all the clips stored on the camera, and each clip stays on the camera until you decide what to do with it. Swipe right to save a clip, or left to delete it. If you save a clip, it transfers to the Google Photos app on your phone, but either action (saving or deleting) will remove the clip from the camera.
Once you hit save—and only once you hit save—the clip can be sent out onto the internet if you want. The important detail here is that you have to physically do something with your thumb in order to make a clip public. Google earns a double win here. The company admirably sidesteps the privacy quandaries inherent in a connected camera, and it gets to brag about how it built and trained a fairly smart AI engine that fits onto a tiny piece of silicon.
The Clips is quite obviously a camera. Its lens is prominent, and the LEDs on the front flash when it’s on—another visual nudge to ease the paranoids’ fear of surveillance.
It works best if you set it between two and 10 feet away from the subject. Ideally, you’d put the camera somewhere that allows its wide-angle lens to pick up the most action. If your dog is doing a trick, set it on the floor. If your kid is riding a bike, clip it to the handlebars, pointing back at them. The app provides a live video feed you can study to adjust the positioning, and the camera self-orients in portrait or landscape mode, so it doesn’t matter if you clip it sideways or upside-down.
After it’s in position, you just … close the app and put your phone away. The camera will pick up everything happening in its field of view, analyzing the visuals and plucking out the good bits as it goes. There is a button on the face of the camera, and pressing it spools a seven-second clip right away. But hands-free operation is what it’s made for.
It’s a design choice parents will surely appreciate. If you want to grab a clip of something cute your kids are doing but all you have is a phone, you have to pull out your device, open the camera app, set up the shot, then hold still while it records. It only takes a few seconds, sure, but even by the time you’re ready, the kid is probably done doing the thing you wanted to record and is now mugging for the camera. Oh, and also, you just missed the cute moment because you were messing with your phone. The goal of Clips is to erase all of that friction, slurp up every moment, then sift through it all for the good stuff. It’s designed to never miss that tender morsel of cute.
Be Seeing You
Of course, to buy that pitch, you need to trust that the camera is going to capture every special moment. I don’t have any children, but I have an adorable kitty cat and some equally adorable friends, and I spent a week pointing Clips at them. I can say that the on-board computer-vision AI is really good at sensing both overt and subtle emotional cues.
If you wave at it or do something silly, the camera is for sure going to save that clip (Here’s one). If a human does a sudden movement, like if they jump or clap or swing their arms, Clips will earmark those parts too. It’s also good at sensing movement in pets. I pointed it at my cat and tried to get her to play with her feather toy. I dangled the toy around her head for a full minute while she sat there disinterested (she is a cat) before finally taking the bait. When I opened my phone, the only clip it saved was the money shot where she pounced on the toy. Perfect.
It became obvious in my testing that the AI has also been trained to sense smiles. Even a subtle smile will get noticed and saved. I saw this time and time again as I parked the camera around the house. It repeatedly saved the moments when one of us laughed, smiled, or glanced directly at the camera.
For a bit of fun, I clipped the camera to my drummer’s cymbal stand during band practice. It watched him play the drums for about 20 minutes, and the only clips it saved were the moments when he smiled as we joked around between songs. This is how the Google Clips’s AI works. It saw a repetitive motion (a man playing the drums) and ignored the long stretches of that activity in favor of the little bursts of emotion it had be trained to recognize. Something like a GoPro would be the better choice if I actually wanted to record the drumming bits. But for auto-capturing the moments when a sense of joy is more obvious, Clips works well.
The chip on the camera gets to know your family too, and it prioritizes the “main characters” in your life story over other, less-frequently-seen fauna. I’d recommend taking selfies with it when you first get it so it knows who’s most important.
The Eye of the Beholder
Google tells me it enlisted professional photographers to train the Clips’ AI, and that they concentrated the training on people and pets. Because of this groundwork, it doesn’t recognize any of the other objects in the world. So while Google’s more robust computer vision systems can recognize cars, hats, shoes, or the ocean—making images containing those things accessible via typed searches—Clips’s miniaturized AI code just recognizes Timmy, Tammy, Fluffy, and Fido. Still, that leaves enough smarts to deliver on the gadget’s promise: that it takes the tedium, the timing, and the guesswork out of capturing fun, shareable clips of your family.
A bit more on the sharing part. You’ll need a Google Photos account to get the most out of the camera, and you can adjust your account’s privacy settings to your liking. If you’re not into Google Photos, you can use the Clips app to trim your videos or pull out a still photo, then share your creations directly from your phone. And yes, it exports GIFs. Because really, what use would it be if you couldn’t make GIF.