How Google Might Shape Next-generation Travel

Last week, Google held its annual I/O summit at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Many developers, executives and experience designers gathered to see what’s next in Google’s sprawling and often experimental product roadmap.

While it tends to get only a fraction of the amount of coverage that Apple’s announcements receive, it can often be a truer indication of the direction that technology and experience might take than you’ll see at Apple’s events. Why? Goggle’s products are, in general, aimed at mass-market penetration as they are frequently ad-funded and are not locked into the Apple ecosystem. This makes them easier to take up for more consumers, especially outside of the United States, where Apple’s hold is less strong.

So what are the big announcements from this year, and how might they affect the word of travel?

1. Google Lens

Lens is a product to be released at some point in the near future that was the focus for a good deal of I/O. Using the phone’s camera and data connection, Lens uses image recognition to identify objects in your view in real time. Some of the examples offered could clearly be a godsend to travelers: simply scanning a wifi sticker on a router in order to access the wifi without typing a single digit, scanning a menu or food item to find out what it is, or scanning artworks or buildings while touring.

Also, with most of Google’s products being open to developers, guidebooks for cities, galleries and venues could soon be simply equipped with scan-and-learn functions that identify objects and connect you to any number of sources to explain their history.

2. Smart photo tools

We all know the experience of getting back from a holiday and trying to organize the images we’ve taken into one collection – it’s bad enough with each member of a couple having a phone, let alone a whole family or group.

Google is building intelligence into the process of organizing images: For example, you could with a couple of clicks send to your friend Jim all the images from your camera reel that Google has recognized as containing his face.

From a brand perspective, it could become possible for hotels or tourist location management to set up photo collection points which could serve as launchpads for data collection, running competitions or other marketing activities.

3. A new DayDream VR Headset Extension

I’ve written previously about the potential of virtual reality for travel and have worked on projects that help users step into a VR environment to experience a far-away destination. There’s no doubt that we are at the start of huge growth in VR as a way of selling travel more immersively.

At I/O, Google announced that Samsung’s Galaxy devices will now work with the Daydream headset. This doesn’t sound that exciting, but what it does is bring together two of the biggest VR players, adding more inter-operability between devices, which is always good for driving consumer take-up.

4. Visual Positioning

Finally, Google announced a visual positioning system (VPS). If you imagine that GPS has successfully helped us navigate longer outdoor journeys, VPS is likely to do the same for indoor spaces and to do so to a few centimeters’ degree of accuracy. 

The technology uses Google’s depth-sensing device, Tango, which we have previously used to create a “seeing mobile phone” for blind people.

VPS could prove invaluable in helping users navigate complex indoor spaces such as museums or sports grounds. Simply holding up the device would enable Google to check against objects that have previously been scanned by the venue owners into a kind of navigational blueprint, and then display directions or promotions, or even play them back through headsets. While Tango-ready mobile phones are going to be a small minority this year, it’s possible we’ll see visual navigation being a more widespread opportunity through 2018.

With so much attention going to Apple, it’s these kinds of developments that may be worth paying some attention to. As always, though, it’s best to start with a very small-scale proof-of-concept or simply spend some quality time doing experience design to ensure that, no matter how cool the tech or how shiny the object, they can be used for a purpose that is truly useful to the next-generation traveler.

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