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Google's Bubble Zoom uses AI to enlarge the text of comic book speech bubbles

Ever find the speech bubbles above comic book characters a bit hard to read on your tablet or smartphone? Google’s Play Books team apparently did, and so it used machine learning to develop a solution: Bubble Zoom. The new feature, bound for the search giant’s Play Books app on tablets and smartphones, intelligently enlarges text within comic books and graphic novels.

The goal, Google explained during Bubble Zoom’s unveiling at the San Diego Comic-Con on Thursday, was to address an all-to-common digital comic dilemma: encountering type so minuscule, it strains your eyes. With Bubble Zoom enabled, that’s a problem no longer. As you flip through the pages of a supported comic book, you can tap on any given speech bubble to expand it in size to a readable level. Better still, you don’t have to lift more than a single finger to do so: speech bubbles resize within conscripted, invisible boundaries that prevent them from obscuring a page’s illustrations.

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The underlying tech behind the magic is Google’s “machine learning” algorithms, explained Google Play Books Head of Product Greg Hartrell in a blog post. “Machine learning is the technology that makes the digital things in your life more useful,” he said. “We trained our system to identify speech bubbles in comics.” Much like Google’s artificially intelligent picture-hosting service, Google Photos, which can distinguish an armadillo from, say, a kumquat, Bubble Zoom can pick out speech bubbles from a crowded page of illustrations.

“We can detect shapes and objects and images — we’ve very good at this,” said Brady Duga, an engineer for Google Play Books, in a video introducing the feature. “This is basically looking at a rich visual scene and extracting important information.”

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It could use some refinement, though. Bubble Zoom, which is launching in “technical preview,” is only supported on Marvel and DC-collected volumes sold through the Play Books store. And initially, it will only be available to Android users. But Google is committed to making improvements. “As we continue to teach our machines to read more comic book styles, our goal is to eventually bring Bubble Zoom to all the comics and manga ever made,” said Hartrell.

Separately, Google announced a Play Books sale on select Marvel and DC comics through July 24. If you’re looking to take advantage, use the promo code “SDCC2016” (without quotes) at checkout.