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An assistant that constantly pesters you with tidbits about your surroundings might sound pretty irritating. But Field Trip, a new smartphone app from Google that does just this, is surprisingly charming and useful. It may also enrich the company by serving up useful location-based ads.

Google released Field Trip, a free app for Android smartphones (an iPhone version is in the works) last week. It periodically serves up alerts based on your current location. The alerts are gathered from a slew of online sources that range from The Historical Marker Database to concert site Songkick to the Google Offers deal service. You can determine how and how often Field Trip pings you with information, and what kinds of data you’re served. 

Field Trip is a smart, serendipitous, and stylish tour guide. And if Google positions it correctly, it could become a nice source of revenue, too. At first, I wasn’t sure how useful Field Trip would be, since I was using it in a familiar place. I know San Francisco fairly well, and I figured it wouldn’t tell me much I didn’t already know. Regardless, I set it to the highest level of interruption, “Explore” (less invasive is “Feeling Lucky,” and you can also just turn the pings off), and wandered the streets near my office and home.

The notifications started coming in, each announced by an admittedly annoying flute sound of my choosing followed by a robotic-sounding female voice relating the details of the post.

There was a lot more going on around me than I realized. An update from the Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations informed me that a key scene from the 1995 identity-theft flick The Net, which stars Sandra Bullock in an early role, was filmed at a real Apple convention at Moscone Center. An update from Arcadia Publishing taught me about the architect and design style behind a beautiful brick middle school that I pass—usually without noticing—several times a week (I hadn’t even realized it was a school). And an update via Flavorpill divulged that an interactive art space near my home, Frankenart Mart, offers free hot dogs once a month. Yum.

Unlike with most Google products, the design of Field Trip was the first thing I took a shine to. Google does a lot of things well, but let’s be honest: creating products that are visually pretty isn’t usually one of them.

The styling of this app is delightfully twee, with a faux-paper background and fonts and icons that bring to mind a vintage travel guide. The app includes three main panes: a map view with icons for different kinds of updates, a list of these updates, and another list showing those that Field Trip has decided to highlight.

I was impressed by how deeply you can customize Field Trip. In addition to deciding how often you want to receive notifications, you can order it to speak the titles and descriptions aloud and even choose the conditions under which it should speak (such as when it thinks you’re driving). You can select the individual feeds, which are organized by interest, that seed the app; give individual updates a thumbs-up or thumbs-down; and tell the app to show you more or fewer things from any single data source.

After a while, the frequency and noise got annoying—especially when driving around town, since there were so many new things Field Trip wanted me to learn about—but I learned a lot of new things about the neighborhoods where I live and work, and about their histories and restaurants, in particular.

I also got notifications about a number of deals around me from Vayable, which sells experiences aimed at travelers (surprisingly, I didn’t see any from Google Offers). Unfortunately for Vayable, I wasn’t enticed by its offerings, which included a $199 biking and wine tasting trip and a $500 ride in a Tesla Roadster.

These prices were a bit high for me, and would be even if I were on vacation and in a money-spending mood. But I could see this part of Field Trip becoming useful and lucrative for Google. Vayable’s full website already shows plenty of deals in my area that are well under $100. There could also be some room in Field Trip for targeted ads, an area where Google excels.

I’m guessing that Field Trip would be most useful on a vacation. For me, at least, that’s the time when I’m most open to interruptions, unplanned excursions, and random information about my surroundings.

Regardless of how often people use it, though, the release of Field Trip is an important step for Google as it works to encourage all of us to interact with computers—mobile devices in particular—in new, exciting ways. It’s not as out-there as Project Glass, the glasses-based augmented reality computing project that Google will start sending to developers and early adopters next year, but it is probably less awkward to use. Like Google Now, it illustrates that Google believes we’re getting more used to the idea of a predictive assistant. It also lets Google further refine its location-based ads—something that could mean big money for Google down the road and, let’s hope, less annoying ads for us.

I’ll keep using Field Trip around San Francisco, though I’ll probably turn down the volume and frequency of the notifications. And the next time I go on an out-of-town adventure, I’ll take my new tour guide with me.

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Credit: Tom Simonite | Technology Review

Tagged: Computing, Web, Google, smartphones, apps

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