January 25, 2013 7:27 pm

Eyes left: a day out with Google

The software company’s new Field Trip app learns its user’s tastes, then acts like a personal tour guide

I am cycling through central London, and Google is talking to me. An earphone squeezed under my helmet is wired to my phone, where Google’s new Field Trip app is quietly working away. Sporadically, it matches my coordinates to something it likes nearby, and zings into action with a sharp vibration in my pocket. Then a computerised voice whispers into my ear.

Google’s Field Trip app

I am approaching a pub, it tells me. A glance at my phone informs me that the pub has a collection of memorabilia in an upstairs room detailing the life and works of Dr John Snow, a physician who defeated a cholera outbreak in Soho in 1854. Field Trip is both tipster and teacher. It also breaks one of the rules of mobile applications: not to speak until spoken to.

The app is the first major digital travel guide to go “frictionless” – rather than waiting for users to activate it and search for something, Field Trip works the other way round, running “in the background” and pushing suggestions at the user as they move. Google calls it “seamless discovery”.

It was launched in the US in September, and the UK last month, and helps explain the motivation behind Google’s recent hoovering up of travel information providers, including Frommers last August and Zagat in 2011.

The app was spawned from Google’s Niantic Labs – an “internal start- up”, led by John Hanke, the former head of Geo (covering Google Maps and Google Earth). Field Trip is his first baby. As with most of Google’s success stories, its power comes from its ability to corral large quantities of data. The app takes recommendations from 70 sources (and counting) – including renowned names such as Time Out and Zagat, listings sites such as Flavorpill and Curbed, and niche online guides such as Atlas Obscura and Hidden London.

“The typical mobile app experience interrupts our natural flow through the real world and is anathema to noticing the beauty around us,” says Hanke from his San Francisco base. “We can do much better by designing technology to work in the background and provide helpful tips to us at the right time, without interrupting our normal flow.”

Does it work? A short cycle around Soho quickly shows the diversity of sources. Thrillist points me to a “post-skate brand’s new London flagship” where I can buy “Realtree Camo pants with actual close-up images of tree leaves on the fabric”. Dezeen (a design and architecture site) recommends a frozen yoghurt shop where 700 glass spheres hang from the ceiling, changing colour intermittently. Zagat points out a highly rated Lebanese restaurant, while Songkick lists the line-up for a gig happening at a bar that night.

Field Trip assumes you love everything, and want to know everything. Which, of course, you don’t. So you train it. Each time a tip pops up on your phone, you can decide that it’s “not interesting”, or, if it has annoyed you sufficiently, you may choose to banish that source from your collection altogether.

The app will note your preferences and then learn from them; the data will be fed back to Google. I found Zagat’s tips too predictable, and Architizer’s too niche, so showed them the door. You can also tweak the settings to reduce the frequency of tips.

Perhaps more importantly than its practical benefit as a travel guide, Field Trip is a temperature-tester for two rather existential issues that Google has been chewing over: do humans have an appetite for their world being digitally annotated? And if so, should these annotations show what you like, or what you don’t yet know you like?

Both questions are at the foundation of their next great experiment: Project Glass – the much discussed “Google Glasses” that will annotate the view through a pair of spectacles with relevant digital information. Spearheaded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, the device was first demonstrated at the company’s annual developer conference last year. The tech community has been discussing it ever since, and reacted excitedly when Brin was spotted testing a prototype on a New York subway earlier this month.

“I can imagine a future where an app could become very acquainted with your tastes and moods and tailor its experience to them,” says Hanke. “At the same time, we want to maintain diversity. If we only show users things they have already indicated they like in some way, we may not help them uncover the hidden gems or new experiences that would enrich them.”

My day’s Field Trip trial illustrates the conundrum. As the afternoon wears on, I realise that I have created an app of ever-diminishing returns. I have tailored it so well to my personal tastes that my cycle home is punctuated by Field Trip pointing out all the places I already know.

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