Another camera-related feature is AR Emoji — Samsung’s answer to Apple’s Animoji. So far, I find the S9’s version more fun, mostly because it creates an emoji of my face and not an impersonal, generic one (although I do love me some talking poop). You can use the S9 to create a cute cartoon version of yourself by taking a photo of you staring straight forward. The phone was better at reproducing my likeness than Bitmoji or any other app I’ve used.
But the replication didn’t work as well for everyone. The avatars for some other journalists or Samsung’s own reps, looked nothing like them. For these people, AR Emoji might be less fun, but I was definitely sucked into styling up my avatar with great hair, a cool outfit and cute glasses. After you’re done customizing your emoji, the S9 auto-generates a set of animated stickers that you can insert from within the Messaging app’s keyboard (other apps can find these from the Gallery).
There are a plethora of options right from the get-go, and their resemblance to actual gestures I would do in real life is uncanny. You can also make facial expressions, and the S9’s front cameras will pick them up to be conveyed by your avatar — just like you can do with Animoji.
Another area where Samsung made major changes is Bixby — specifically in the augmented reality Vision section. Besides interface tweaks that make Bixby Vision look more in tune with the camera app, Samsung also added three new modes — Live Translate, Makeup and Food. The previously available shopping and landmark recognition features are now individual modes, too.
The Live Translate tool uses Google’s Translate service, and that has worked well for me in the past. So I’m not surprised that Bixby was able to quickly and accurately translate text in images in real time. What impressed me was Bixby’s ability to read handwritten words — especially when it correctly interpreted my ugly Chinese characters.
Although I had way too much fun playing with the new Makeup feature, I wasn’t impressed with its performance. Like a slew of other selfie-makeup apps, it lets you apply digital makeup in real time and buy products you like without leaving the app. Bixby has a limited offering of color and pattern options, though, which limits its appeal. Still, this is something that’s easily addressed by software updates over time.
Another new Bixby feature is its ability to estimate the number of calories in food you point the S9 at. Samsung teased this at CES, but we only saw a preview version on a Note 8 then. Now, the software is more mature and was able to accurately identify an onion bagel, showing that it contained 270 calories. Based on a quick Google search, that count is pretty accurate.
During our hands-on, Bixby struggled to identify dishes that contained more (and mixed) ingredients. It mistook a cup of granola parfait, which included berries and yogurt, as just a cup of granola alone. Because of that, it also provided an incorrect calorie count. Again, this is an issue that can be fixed over time as Samsung’s software team figures out how to differentiate components of a meal, and when it works, it provides a nifty service.
As before, Bixby Vision recognizes objects like your fresh new sneakers or favorite watch and displays a card in the viewfinder to show you its make, model and price. This feature is still hit-or-miss, though. It correctly identified Velazco’s Adidas kicks, but not my DKNY Minute watch, mistaking it for a Rolex (I wish). It works well with things like wine bottles or artwork, though. Vision can also display information about places of interest when you point it at landmarks.
One final update on the camera — the front 8-megapixel camera and the iris scanner now work together for more reliable unlocking via what Samsung calls “Intelligent Scan.” According to the company’s reps, the iris scanner isn’t as effective in bright light as it is in the dark. With the new system, the S9 will try to sign you in with your eyes by default, but when that fails, it will use facial recognition. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to test out this feature during our demo, so we’ll have to wait till we get our hands on a review unit to try it.