Google Goggles: will we finally ditch the travel guidebook?

Now that Google is translating the world through our smart phones, is there still a need for a travel guide?

The death of the travel guidebook has long been prophesied because of the explosion of travel information online, but travel blogs and forums have not had the swingeing impact that the doomsayers foretold. In fact, the expansion of fashionable guidebook series from the likes of Wallpaper City Guides and Luxe City Guides, in recent years, suggests the guidebook is thriving.
The latest advancement that was labelled as a threat to guidebooks was the launch of Wikitude World Browser at the end of 2008. It works by overlaying information from Wikipedia over a real-time image that you’ve snapped on your mobile phone. It’s called augmented reality (AR), a techie buzzword that covers any overlay of the “virtual” over the “real”. Wikitude is available on Google Android phones and recently became available on some iPhone models, available for download on iTunes.
Adoption of AR travel apps is still in its infancy, but now Google has entered the market with the launch this month of Google Goggles, it could push mobile phone-enabled travel commentary from the obscure to the fashionable.
The name itself, AR, is an insight into the future – perhaps one day we will navigate an unfamiliar city wearing an eyelense that overlays information about the city onto the landscapes we are looking at. But back to the here and now, Goggles is the latest advancement.
You are in the back streets of Venice, you’ve escaped the crowds, and you’ve come across a pretty church.
The warden speaks no English and there’s no turnstiles, no leaflets and no tour guides. Previously the discovery would have had you reaching for a guidebook for information: when the church was built, a commentary on the frescoes, and so on, but take a snap of it on your smart phone and Goggles will return a list of search results with information about the church.
It works by using image recognition against Google’s many millions of databased images to figure out what you’re looking at., in combination with GPS to suggest information about what is nearby.
If it’s a hotel you are looking for information about, you can of course type the name into a search engine browser, but by opening the Goggles app on your phone and snapping a picture, you’ve saved yourself a fiddly bit of typing on a touch screen or mini keyboard, and you can quickly access user reviews from sites like Tripadvisor or compare prices using online travel agents.
What’s more interesting is what comes next. Want to read up the tasting notes of an unfamiliar wine when you’re eating in a Tuscan trattoria? Take a snap of the wine label and if Goggles can match the image to its database you can read up reviews and also see what kind of mark-up the restaurant is adding. It works also for souvenirs – take a snap of a product and Goggles will find it online and tell you where it’s cheapest and a bit more about it. It’s a service that Amazon has also been experimenting with, its app allows consumers to compare online prices with the price tag in the shops.
At the moment the technology is not infallible, and Google is first to admit that. I tried taking pictures of some food items to see if Goggles could figure out what it was – the idea being that an unfamiliar plate of exotic food could be deciphered before finding out too late that you’re chewing a goat’s eyeball, or such like. But Goggles wasn’t quite clever enough to figure out the food. Not yet, anyway.
A statement on the Goggles information page reads: “”Works well for some things, but not for all.” The product is continuously being worked on and upgraded. One nascent Goggles tool will translate a menu in a foreign language.
At the moment Goggles is available to Android phone users with the version 1.6. Google hopes it will soon be available as an iPhone app.
Google’s open source approach to development means there are many companies working on AR applications. Layar is one example, an AR tool that has recently launched fun products like a historical tool that lays a virtual reality of the scene you are looking at from hundreds of years ago – for example the Coloseum in Rome reconstructed, with gladiators and lions, or a Beatles tour that overlays the Fab Four onto the road crossing at Abbey Road to recreate the eponymous album cover, and provide information about the band.
Far from being left behind, guidebook publishers are also experimenting with AR. Earlier this month, Lonely Planet made information from its Compass Guides series available on Android phones in the US, overlaying guidebook information on top of real time images. The race for the AR travel guide is hotting up, but with smart phone adoption still around 5 per cent in this country, the guidebook is safe for now.

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