By Michael Fisher | June 6, 2012 12:57 PM
After Samsung announced the Galaxy S III early last month, I wrote a piece discussing whether the end product had been worth the wait. Even after many months of buzz and the accompanying inflated expectations, my conclusion was yes, the Galaxy S III was indeed a very impressive device- not so much from a hardware or design perspective, but because it packed a suite of UI innovations. Things like S Voice, Pop Up Play, and Direct Call all caught our attention in the wake of the announcement, but what I found especially enthralling was a feature called Smart Stay.
Smart Stay earned some interested glances at the device announcement, and for good reason: it’s futuristic, innovative, and a natural progression of the work Google started with facial recognition in Android 4.0. Samsung devoted a special portion of the crowded release-event schedule to Smart Stay.
In the final product, though, the feature is treated with much less reverence. There isn’t even a special section of the Galaxy S III’s user manual devoted to it, only a passing mention toward the back, buried among a list of menu option explanations.
Smart Stay was one of the first features I wanted to test when my Galaxy S III arrived. The prospect of a phone that watched you to make sure you were looking at it, like some kind of attention-starved sibling or modern-age tamagotchi, was oddly appealing to me. Practically, too, the feature seemed useful. We’ve all experienced that frustrating moment when the smartphone display wizard douses the lights just as we’re coming up with the perfect move in Words With Friends. I was relieved that a company had finally stepped up to solve a problem everyone recognized on an unconscious level, but which had never really been spoken of before.
Now that I’ve spent a few days with a Galaxy S III, I have enough usage experience to offer some opinions on the Little Phone That Watches Me.
What It’s Supposed To Do
Smart Stay is a pretty straightforward feature: it checks periodically to see if you’re looking at the display, and turns the backlight off if you’re not, saving battery life. It does this by using the device’s front-facing camera to detect your face. Smart Stay only engages the camera at the end of the display time-out period; if the backlight is set to turn off after fifteen seconds, the device will check for your eyeballs only after fifteen seconds have passed. The device isn’t constantly watching you, then, which is slightly less futuristic, but also considerably less creepy. When the camera is engaged, an Illuminati-esque eyeball icon pops up in the status bar, letting you know you’re being watched.
What it Actually Does
In normal lighting conditions, the feature works fairly well. The eyeball icon dutifully flickers to life if I’ve let the display go untouched for a while, and if my face is positioned somewhere in a wide cone in front of the screen, the LCD stays lit. A few times, I’ve tried to see what kind of criteria the software uses to determine what “looking” means. I was curious whether it was actually focusing on my eyeballs, or if a face alone would do. So I tried keeping my big mug in front of the phone and averting my gaze for a bit. Initially, I fooled it with this approach, the display staying lit even though I was looking at something adjacent to or behind the phone. I hastily concluded that Smart Stay just recognized faces … until I realized I was unable to consistently reproduce that result. Sometimes I fooled it, and sometimes it got the best of me. I still don’t know what kind of matching it does, or how important eyeball position really is to the equation.
That inconsistency gets kind of annoying when it bleeds over into normal operation, as it sometimes does. Looking at the phone from even a slightly offset angle doesn’t seem to register to Smart Stay, which reminds me even more of the finicky face-unlock feature in stock ICS. Forget about more extreme-angle situations, too- like glancing at the phone when it’s lying on a table, or sitting in your lap. The phone can’t see you if you’re not right in front of it, and it’ll turn out the lights.
Speaking of lights: the most crippling problem with Smart Stay is that it doesn’t work in the dark.
When a coworker with an SGS3 told me about that, I figured it must’ve been user error. Surely, I thought, there was no way Samsung released this feature in that state. From reading in bed, to looking up Google Maps in a taxicab at night, to texting in a dimly-lit bar, we use our phones in the dark constantly.
But when I first enabled Smart Stay, I got confirmation of this shortfall from the phone itself.
And sure enough, my first attempt to use the phone in a darkened office confirmed this shortcoming. I’d thought maybe the spill light from the screen itself might be enough to illuminate my eyes for the camera, but no such luck. The Smart Stay icon flickered to life, disappeared, reappeared briefly, and then the screen went dark. Maybe future Samsung devices will incorporate some kind of infra-red front-facing camera to augment later versions of Smart Stay, but until then, the feature’s night-blindness is a severe -almost crippling- limitation: it forces users to either choose outrageously long backlight timeout settings, or dive into the settings menu to disable Smart Stay every time the sun goes down.
Are you using Smart Stay on your Galaxy S III, or did you turn it off the minute the novelty wore off? Do you have tips, tricks, or further speculation on how the feature works? Drop us a line in the comments below.