Google's new Photos app includes groundbreaking technology

At last week's Google I/O developer's conference -- chock full of product announcements and glimpses of the future of computing -- one of the more seemingly innocuous events was the release of Google Photos. After all, amid the next version of Android (called Android M), offline navigation for Google Maps, and an operating system for the Internet of Things known as Brillo, what could a simple photo management app have to offer?

A lot. Google Photos is a cross platform service that works in a browser as well as on iOS and Android. And it more or less reinvents the way people currently go about organizing photo collections. This is no small matter: Because of the high quality and ever-present camera in modern phones, we capture and store more photos today than was imaginable in the days of film. According to Hyperallergic, the average person shot 177 photos per year in 2006 (at the start of the smartphone revolution). By 2015, that number had doubled to 322 photos. Finding a specific photo is getting more difficult than tracking down a particular email before the days of Gmail and Outlook's instant search.

First, some basic specs. At its core, Google Photo is an online photo and video storage service. Google offers unlimited storage for photos up to 16 megapixels and all videos up to 1080P in resolution. There's some fine print here: Larger media can be stored, but it counts against your Google Drive storage capacity. And even the free images get some minor compression, so don't count on Google Photos for backing up photos at archival quality.

Google Photos is a lot more than just a cloud to hold your photos, though. Unlike Dropbox, OneDrive, and other photo backup solutions, Google has built some formidable technology into Google Photos to simplify the act of managing your photo collection. Indeed, using Google Photos, you may never need to manually sort, organize, rename, or tag a photo again. Google does that automatically for you, as it's uploaded and processed.

There are two ways to locate a photo in Google Photos. If you know approximately when it was it was taken, you can scroll through you collection while the month and year rolls forward or back, identifying exactly where you are in time. Or, if you want to search by keyword, you'll find that Google knows all sorts of things about your photos. In addition to knowing where and when the photos were taken via geotagging, Google has performed an almost magical amount of pattern and face recognition on your images. Search for animals, and it'll find dogs, cats, giraffes, and more. A search for "skateboard" turns up photos of people riding skateboards. Google can identify "mugs," "skyscrapers," and "lunch" (which may include photos of people eating, as well as photos of food on plates). A search for "whiteboard" turns up all the photos you've taken of whiteboard notes from brainstorming meetings.

These aren't pre-canned keywords that Google Photos suggests, either. While the app does automatically group photos into keyword buckets it thinks you'll like, you can search using any term you can think of, and it's honestly difficult to stump the app. The details that Google finds and notes about your photos is truly remarkable. With pattern recognition and search this good, there's no reason to organize your photos manually. It's just too easy to find stuff when you need it without any extra effort.

Of course, Google Photos is just a showcase for this impressive search technology. It'll be a lot more interesting to see how Google chooses to apply the underlying engine behind Google Photos next.

Photo courtesy Google