Travels with Google: does technology improve or spoil the holiday experience?

Author

Lee Marshall

October 13, 2014

Can a talking iPhone and Google Glass be your holiday guide? Lee Marshall finds out in Florence

Talking on your phone in the street has become accepted behaviour. Talking to your phone in the street is a different matter. So I’m feeling more than a little self-conscious as, in the middle of the camera-happy crowds on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, I ask my smartphone: “OK Google. Show me a good gelateria near here.”

My words appear on the screen as “Show me if he could chill out a Rooney,” followed by a link to quotes from the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. On my fourth try – by which time my attempts at clear enunciation are attracting some serious attention – a disembodied voice, like that of a slightly stressed London PR girl, informs me “Here are the listings for some good gelaterias”. A selection of nearby ice-cream emporiums pops up, complete with photos, contact details, a map and user reviews.

However, there’s one thing I haven’t told my Google Now voice assistant. I know Florence at least as well as she does. I’m also a bit of a gelato aficionado – and there’s one glaring omission in the list she’s sent me: the Gelateria della Passera, a tiny natural gelateria in a cute little piazza, with knockout flavours such as mojito or chocolate orange. It also happens to be the closest good gelateria to the Ponte Vecchio. Closer than the admittedly excellent Carapina – which Ms Google did recommend, and which would be my second choice.

I was in Florence on a trip organised by Google to demonstrate “how Google tools and technology are transforming holidays”. The trip would take me and a group of other British and German travel and tech journalists from central Florence to the heart of Chianti, via a fleet of flame-red Fiat 500s that made us all feel like we were in an Italian remake of The Italian Job. All that was lacking was the voice of Michael Caine.

Some tools, like Google Maps and Street View, are by now old familiars. Along with the chance to be plagued by emails wherever I go, Maps is the reason I have a smartphone – being able to find out how to reach my destination by the shortest route, complete with bus and train times in many cases, has replaced hours spent poring over timetables and paper maps (though I still love these, and continue to use them on mountain walks – smartphones are only as good as long as the battery lasts).

Google Now is a more recent innovation (it was introduced on the first Android phones in July 2012, and is now also available for iPhones). Confusingly, it’s actually two things in one package. One is Voice Search, that voice-controlled assistant, activated simply by speaking the words “OK Google” (though I discovered it also responds to “OK Goo”, or even “K Goo”). The other is an “intelligent personal assistant” that aims to get you useful information before you even ask for it.

Let’s say you get a flight confirmation via email. Depending on whether the service has rolled out to your territory yet (America always gets first dibs), Google Now will turn this into a “card” which will pop up on the day you’re due to fly. Your boarding time, terminal and flight status will all appear – eventually, once the relevant deals are sealed, your boarding pass too – and you can also find out when you need to leave for the airport depending on the volume of traffic en route. Other cards might include weather forecasts for your location and destination, the time back home, birthday reminders, bills to pay, hotel and restaurant reservations, and how your favourite football team is getting on. Alarmingly, much of the information is based on daily habits. After a while, it will start giving you traffic updates based on routes you take regularly. Oh, and it also knows where you parked your car. How? You were navigating using Google Maps, and you stopped. Welcome to the all-seeing Googleverse.

Google and Travel2

That, at least, is the theory. However, Google Now gave me very few cards apart from the weather and Bristol City’s next fixture. Indeed, there was an element of “beta” in much of the weekend’s challenges. We were ushered into our villa’s herb garden to pick the ingredients for dinner, and encouraged to ask our Google smartphones to show us photos of thyme or marjoram. That worked reasonably well, though “Show me thyme” needed to be spoken as “Show me the herb thyme” if you didn’t want to be told that it was 6.32pm. But when one of our Google minders tried to demonstrate how easy it is to be reminded next time you’re near the supermarket that you’re out of Swiss chard, Google Now stayed stubbornly silent. “It worked yesterday,” became the buzzwords of the trip.

As for Google Glass, which we got to try before a refreshingly un-technological traditional Tuscan dinner at Villa Vignamaggio, it’s still very much in the gimmick class (something Google itself seems to have realised – many early adopters have stopped using the product, and the general consumer release has been pushed back from 2014 to “we’re not sure”). You can take photos or videos directly from your wearable technology glasses, but the quality is poor, the glasses made me feel dizzy, and attempting to coax them into translating into English the words on the back of an olive oil tin produced no results. A feature that allowed one to stare up at the heavens and see the constellations even in daylight was cool – but it’s not going to turn the travel world upside down.

Google Glass indoors

In the end – at least until Google can haggle with taxi drivers in Neapolitan dialect – what the trip showed me was that Google’s most valuable features for those on holiday remain Google Search and Maps. Sure, being able to search hands-free and get spoken results can be useful at times. And travellers may find Google Now’s predictive cards handy – personally, I found them slightly creepy. One other function in Google Translate was useful, I’ll admit: being able to photograph a restaurant menu in any of around 50 languages and get an English translation (not a perfect one, but better than nothing). And Street View and/or Google Earth will always be fantastic for checking the surroundings of apartments offered for rent on sites such as Airbnb, or for making sure that delightful Puglian hotel isn’t next door to a wrecker’s yard.

Many of us no longer take guidebooks with us when we go on holiday because we’re confident that we can get all the information we need from our smartphones. I learnt a few new tricks during the Google trip; but what was missing was the sense that I was in the hands of someone I could trust. Reams of facts are available to travellers these days at the swipe of a finger. What’s lacking is quality control.

Read more

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