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A New Google App Gives You Local Information — Before You Ask for It

By CLAIRE CAIN MILLER

Google has created a new mobile app that gives people facts about the places around them — unprompted, without the need to even ask for the information.

The app, Field Trip, offers historical trivia about a park, an architectural factoid about a building or reviews of a nearby restaurant. Google says it’s like having a local friend with you as you make your way through a city.

“The idea behind the app was to build something that would help people connect with the real, physical world around them,” said John Hanke, a vice president of product at Google who runs a small lab at the company building location-based and social mobile apps. “It’s always running in the background, so it knows where you are and is always looking to see if something interesting is in your immediate physical environment.”

While the app might seem small, it reveals a lot about the big directions Google wants to go.

Google, along with other companies and researchers, dreams of so-called ubiquitous computing or ambient intelligence — computers woven into the texture of life as opposed to being separate machines. Eventually, the theory goes, computers will be part of the environment, know where people are and anticipate what they want to know.

The Field Trip app is a small step in that direction, and an example of what Google is capable of doing. Another is Google Glass, the Internet-connected eyeglass frames with a small screen. With Field Trip, Google is trying to move beyond the first generation of mobile apps, which were not much more than desktop transplants, Mr. Hanke said.

Google wants to “move the device out of your way and put the information front and center,” he said, so people can “scan the environment and know what the Web knows about the places around you.”

Fans of “Iron Man,” “The Terminator” or William Gibson’s science fiction will recognize this idea of augmented reality, he said. “What we’re doing is essentially building the information framework and tools to enable that kind of experience in the future.”

More immediately, Field Trip is a big step toward helping Google get its services and ads in front of mobile users. While it has long been a dream of advertising companies to deliver ads to people on their phones when they are near a business, that is still relatively rare. But with Field Trip, Google is able to show restaurant reviews from its Zagat service or sell deals from Google Offers or city tours from Vayable, all based on a person’s location.

In addition to Google’s own services, most of the information in Field Trip comes from a few dozen publishing partners, some esoteric, including Arcadia Publishing, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Eater and Cool Hunting.

Field Trip uses signals from nearby cellphone towers to determine a user’s location. Its users can choose from which publishers they receive alerts — so they could turn off alerts for Google Offers, for instance — and how frequently they want to receive them. They can also choose not to receive alerts, in which case they open the app to find information.

Users can also ask Field Trip to read them notifications if the phone is connected to a headset or Bluetooth or if they are driving — and the app will determine on its own that they are driving based on how fast they are moving.

Mr. Hanke, who co-founded Keyhole, a mapping start-up that Google bought to help it develop maps, was the head of Google Maps for several years. Last year, he decided he wanted to leave Google to found another start-up. But Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, persuaded him to stay, Mr. Hanke said, and start a small lab in San Francisco. He named it Niantic Labs, after a ship that traveled to San Francisco during the Gold Rush.

Field Trip is available for Android phones; Google is working on an iPhone version. To introduce the app, Google on Saturday is playing host at parties in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis for people to explore the cities. Attendance is free. Registration is at FieldTripDay.com.

A New Google App Gives You Local Information — Before You Ask for It

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