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Google I/O: 3 Hits, Up Close

Google Maps, Search and Google+ changes stand out among news announced at Google I/O thus far. Take a closer look.

Google is bound and determined to make Google+ matter more. For now, it's third in a three-horse race, but that hasn't stopped the company from making improvements, starting with a multi-column design that presents more content. The goal: "Design and depth," said Google's senior VP of engineering, Vic Gundotra. The menu of options slides in and out; cards flip and fade.

Google is adding the concept of hashtags to Google+ entries, and Gundotra said that these are automatically generated. (I'm still seeing plenty of cards without hashtags; Gundotra said that users can disable this feature, or correct it.) The hashtags are used not just to search content, but to explore it. The tags are displayed on the cards, and when you select one, the card flips, revealing more content around the tag; you can flip through various related posts. This is the "depth" part of the "design and depth" concept.

Google also spun out Hangouts, a video-chat service that was one of the most useful Google+ features. Now Hangouts will become Google's messaging app, essentially replacing Google Talk, but combining video, presence and group communication features. It will work on Android and iOS, as well as in the Chrome browser and directly from Gmail. The first thing you'll notice is that Hangouts starts with a list of conversations. It's easy to add people to the conversations, to switch from text to video, to add photos. Conversations can also be saved and stored in the cloud. (See this related article on The Verge for a deeper dive into the evolution of Hangouts.)

Finally, Google has enhanced the Google+ photo features, promising that the company's technology will take over labor-intensive photo enhancing tasks. For one thing, it includes a Highlights function that uses a variety of filters to display your most important photos, based on aesthetic quality, affinity (it recognizes who is important to you) and more. I don't have many photos in Google+, so I uploaded as many as I could and found that the Highlights did a reasonably good job of selecting photos, although it wasn't clear how I could instruct Google+ to filter differently. I also suspect that affinity is based on Google+ Circles, and there just isn't enough data there (in my own photos, or Circles) to provide any insight.

You can also have Google+ automatically enhance your images -- say if they are over- or under-exposed, or grainy, or lack structure in part of the image. The software can soften your skin -- it recognizes faces and treats human faces like a photo touch-up professional would. I experimented with this a bit, and did see some improvements, but I was mostly working with photos I had already kept because they didn't have those aforementioned problems.

You can also use features that Google calls "Auto Awesome." These include "Smile" (Google will construct a new image from multiple photos to make sure each subject is smiling), panoramic mode and motion. With motion, Google stitches together similar photos for an animated GIF. It worked amazingly well.

I'm not sure that the 41 new features Google has added to Google+ will make Facebook tremble, but they will give people more reason to try out the service, or use it more -- if not for the service itself, then for the benefits it provides to other applications like Search and Google Maps. We're likely to see Google continue to push here, because without a strong, populated social offering it loses a vital thread between almost every other service.

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