Thursday, November 11, 2010

Google Mobile Tools Make Travel Easier

Emerging from the Lincoln Tunnel to find that the southbound New Jersey Turnpike was closed could have meant that we'd miss the opening of Jon Stewart's Rally for Sanity. But Google Navigate wasn't going to let that happen.

While my husband swerved off the nearest exit looking for his own detour, the slightly Asian sounding femme behind Google Navigate, an application running on my Motorola Droid2 phone, calmly said, "Turn left 300 yards."

"No," my husband firmly responded, "I think I can get to the turnpike over there..." 

"Turn left 100 yards," she calmly insisted, doing more with her soothing tone than this wife could ever do with hers -- convince my husband that she was right.  And she was -- Ms. Goonavi, that is. She got us onto the NJT heading to Washington DC in just two quick turns on unmarked streets through a quiet residential neighborhood.  A miracle indeed.

Tech Tools for the Traveler
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a boomer mom who's not interested in new technology if the learning curve is too steep -- I just don't have the time or desire to supplant a lifetime of effectiveInc analog travel tools that have taken me happily around the world. Yet I was happy to test out some of the applications that Google Mobile has made available to smartphone users because their products are usually well designed and useful.

The products that Google's Mobile Division brought to my attention are Voice Search and Voice Action which allow the user to speak commands into the device and have it respond; Maps for Mobile with Google Navigate as a GPS system; the full featured Google Translate tool; and Google Goggles which is an image recognition tool. All work to their fullest capacity on the many smartphones that use an Android operating system, but many of the features are available free of charge to iPhone and Blackberry RIM smartphones with the free Google Mobile Apps download.
Google's Voice Search & Voice Action

Not to be confused with Google Talk, which is the company's free internet phone service a la Skype, Voice Search and Voice Action are applications that are built into many Google mobile services because they enable speech to drive the functionality. 

For the traveler, speaking the address into a smartphone to activate navigation tools means you can avoid looking for reading glasses to type in a destination or study a tiny digital map. After we arrived in Washington, I spoke another address -- the funky Eastern Market green market and crafts fair -- into the system and the phone directed us out loud on a mini-walking tour through the beautiful lanes of Capitol Hill. 

Voice Search is also great for quick info, like "What is the weather in San Francisco?" Spoken search keywords give you a Search Engine Results Page (SERP) with enough detail about temperature, wind and forecast that you don't need to click on any results unless you want to learn more. According to Google spokesperson Nadja Blagojevic, "At the moment, you can search with your voice in English, Japanese, Mandarin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Czech and Turkish."

The "Action" part of Voice Search also syncs with downloads like the music program Pandora. If, for example, you're driving and want to hear Kid Rock you can "ask" the smartphone to pump that type of music through the handset or your bluetooth-connected speakers.



Google Navigate Incorporates Maps & Voice Action  Soon after his comeuppance by Ms. Goonavi, my husband turned on the proprietary navigation system built into the dashboard of our borrowed Audi SUV to "double check" Goonavi's directions and found them in sync all the way.

This navigation tool is truly fabulous.  It took me 7 minutes to figure out how to reprogram the route on the Audi GPS, in comparison to clicking on the Navigate icon on my phone, clicking on microphone icon, and asking it to guide us to 8th Street NE in Washington DC. She seemed to understand me perfectly and I actually preferred Goonavi's brief instructions and quiet demeanor, to the Audi's -- a strident voice that insisted on reminding us every 5 miles to stay on the same highway we were on.  Now I dream of being able to download Snoop Dogg or another mellow companion to read me traffic directions if I'm soloing a road trip.

My skeptical husband preferred Goonavi's familiar Google Maps display, and loved that you could ask her to use other Google search tools simultaneously.  Google Navigate easily overlays a Street View approach to the road, or a Local Places view with pushpins for restaurants, gas stations and more when you add the "Layers" filter to your results. While Navigate works beautifully for drivers and pedestrians, it may one day serve the similar needs of bicyclists and those using public transportation.
Google Translate

If you know that feeling of needing a toilet and trying to figure out if baƱo, toilette, tuvalet, WC or some other word will get you there, then Google Translater is a wonderful tool. Not if you're in a rush however. The rather clunky user interface makes it difficult to swtich between languages and hard to maneuver between typed questions and spoken ones.  Useful is the "search history" function so if you really need a john now you can scroll down through the list of recently translated terms and pull it up quickly.

However, the accuracy and clarity of the written and spoken translations fill one with wonder. After you input a question using the keypad or voice, the result -- translated into your choice of 50 languages -- is displayed in type on your screen and can, with many languges, be spoken aloud. Testing and listening to Spanish, French and Italian was easy for me, and a friend fluent in Chinese corroborated how accurate the pinyin (phonetic display of translation) and characters were.  Google Translate is not yet capable of speaking Chinese but that will come soon.

Google Goggles is a Visual Search ToolGoggles, the company's image recognition tool, is the least satisfying of these travel tools to play with. Billed as a Place Finder because of its ability to scan a photograph taken with your smartphone, Goggles scans the image and compares it to the millions of images in its database, to deliver a search results page about the structure you've photographed.

As a Google Mobile spokesperson explained in our interview, Goggle will not identify whether that high style Mom is carrying a Kate Spade or a Vuitton handbag, because those are objects, like animals, that mutate their shape with use.  Instead, you might photograph an arch with prancing horses in Berlin and learn that you've happened upon the city's famous Brandenberg Gate, or shoot the Eiffel Tower and be able to learn about Gustav Eiffel's engineering background through the relevant search results that appear. 

I tested out a few items, having the most luck with a larger-than-life barcode displayed on the window of my local Whole Foods.  As soon as Goggle was done scanning it, my smartphone displayed a long URL that I clicked on, which led me to an old-fashioned circular or weekly magazine that highlighted which Whole Foods products were currently on sale.

In contrast, when I photographed the U.S. Capitol at a distance, it matched the image to a WikiMedia link for the Presidentail Inauguration which featured a similar image of the Capitol with many people in the foreground. Another attempt at a closeup shot just made the phone crash.

Problems in Paradise
Therein lies another tale of problems and technical woes. As with anything new, there is bound to be a gap between a user's abilities, the smartphone's capabilities and a travelers expectations.  Efforts to download the map and navigation tools on a Blackberry were frustrating and inconclusive, because we could not get the Voice Action tools to recite driving directions.

A friend downloading the Google Mobile app on her iPhone found it went very smoothly and was thrilled to know she could study Spanish on her way to work.

Privacy paranoids should note that EULA for Googles warns users that their images become the property of Google, in essence as training tools to refine Goggles' image recognition skills.  However, their spokesperson noted that users can choose to store the images on Google servers by enabling "Search History," or choose to use Goggles more anonymously with Search History turned off.

Bottom line:  Download these apps from Google Mobile well before you need them, practice so you know what they're capable of, and then take them with you and enjoy. They are truly wonderful advances in mobile technology.

By Kyle McCarthy, FamilyTravelForum.com

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