Tuesday 17 October 2017

Travel TV: Can Google really work as a personal travel guide?

Mobile in Madrid

Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Can Google apps really act as a butler or concierge on holiday? Pól Ó Conghaile puts them to the test in Madrid.

I’ve never been to Madrid.

I’ve always wanted to go, but it's remained one of those stubborn gaps on my map – a city that never seemed to present itself at the right time, or in the right way. Then Google got in touch.

We’d like you to explore the city using Google apps, they said.

The proposition was simple. Google is reaching deeper and deeper into travel - not just through search, or gizmos like Google Hotel Finder and Flight Search, but through the very tools with which we navigate, communicate, capture and share our experiences on the road. To date, its probings have had something of an experimental feel. But the dots are joining up.

My mission in Madrid? To see how “seamlessly” apps like Google Maps, Translate, Calendar and Photos can now integrate, and whether they can really deliver “an almost butler/concierge experience" on holiday, as Google claims.

Here’s how the trip panned out.

Thursday, 6.15am: Dublin Airport

The day before I’m set to fly to Madrid, I receive several lunch and dinner invitations through my Gmail. Clicking RSVP, these instantly appear in the Google and Calendar apps on my phone. Likewise, the apps pull down flight details without me having to tell them, presenting a ‘card’ containing my flight status, booking numbers and terminals in the Google app.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Google app “can help manage your travel plans just like a travel assistant,” as is promised – and I still need to do humdrum tasks like check-in online and print my boarding pass - but it’s super-handy to have all of this information in one place.

Yes, I think. I could definitely get used to this.

Sunset in Puerta del Sol, Madrid
Sunset in Puerta del Sol, Madrid
Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid
Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Only You Hotel: Madrid
Madrid at night
Jamon Iberico at NO Restaurant, Madrid
Google Translate in action in Madrid's los Gayalos restaurant. A 'Word Lens' function uses the camera to translate text in real time.
Pól Ó Conghaile hits the saddle in Madrid. Photo: João Nogueira
Helpful hints from the Google app
Checking in at Madrid's Barajas Airport.

Thursday, 9.30am: Mobile in Madrid

Madrid has a magic all of its own.

Stuffed with world-class art, boasting a food pedigree that combines the best of La Nueva Cocina and ancient Spanish traditions, replete with set-piece squares and atmospheric alleyways, this is one of the great European capitals.

It feels like it’s been here forever, but it feels like anything could happen, too.

The Nexus 6, not so much. Google has given me the phone because it’s an Android device built on a Google platform (thus providing “a seamless Google experience”), but I find it fat and heavy. I much prefer the design and feel of my iPhone 6. I stick with it however, and over the course of my 36 hours in Madrid, it begins to feel like a lot less work (and weight).

From Madrid Airport, I use Google Maps to plot a course towards my hotel using public transport. It’s ultra-quick, as you’d expect, offering a walking route to the Metro station and very reliable guidance on train times and changes.

My journey to Madrid-Recoletos station goes without a hitch.

Read more: The Getaway: Madrid

Thursday, 11am: Checking in

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Only You Hotel: Madrid

Reception at the Only You Hotel

My bed for the night is at the Only You hotel (onlyyouhotels.com; weekend doubles from €218) on Calle del Barquillo. It’s a slick and opulent boutique property built around two tall courtyard atriums near the city’s Chueca neighbourhood, with some gorgeous minimalist touches (I love the studded blue leather headboards, and the suitcases forming a backdrop at reception). Its bars and lounge kick off in the evening too… so bring gladrags if you’re going late.

At the hotel, there’s a briefing from Ed Parsons, a Geospatial Technologist with Google Research. He starts with a demonstration of Google’s Voice Search, which can be activated simply by saying ‘OK Google’ (mobile voice searches have more than doubled in the past year alone, Google says). Amusingly, when Ed says the magic words, the search box opens on my phone too.

The key tools I’m testing in Madrid are the Google app, Google Maps and Google Translate. Ed also demonstrates the Google+ Photos app. Nifty functions include the ability to blur around a central object of focus (such as a plate of food, for example), automatic cloud back-up, unlimited storage space (for Android) and voice search for specific photos. Impressive stuff.

Thursday, 1.15pm: Lunch at Los Galayos

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Google Translate in action in Madrid's los Gayalos restaurant. A 'Word Lens' function uses the camera to translate text in real time.Photo: João Nogueira

Google Translate in action

Los Gayalos (losgayalos.net) is set just off Plaza Mayor, and famed for its suckling pig. Coincidentally, I’ve had it recommended by Niamh Shields of Eat Like a Girl (eatlikeagirl.com), who tweeted a human tip before my trip.

I walk to Los Gayalos using Google Maps. Really, it’s hard to fault this app. Sure, it sometimes leaves you a few dozen yards from your destination, but by and large I find it indispensable (and it certainly blows Apple Maps out of the water). I use it a lot - pinning and starring stuff I want to see, reading user reviews without exiting the interface, taking in 360-degree street views.

Business View is a newer addition – it allows businesses to provide 360-degree photos of their interiors, so I get to preview Los Galayos before I visit. It’s not the same as the real thing, of course (I look forward to the day when phablets can serve suckling pig), but it is a neat gimmick… and it feels pretty titillating to arrive and recognise a room I’ve never been in.

Read more: London by Twitter

Thursday, 4.30pm: Technology on Tour

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Pól Ó Conghaile in Madrid. Is it now possible to travel using Google apps as a guide?

Pól Ó Conghaile at the Royal Palace, Madrid

After lunch, it’s time for a stroll around the city.

Google has organised a treasure hunt, with clues leading to stop-offs like Plaza Mayor and Botin (botin.es) – the city’s oldest restaurant, dating from 1725. Ernest Hemmingway is said to have done the dog on it here, devouring a pair of suckling pigs and two bottles of Rioja in one sitting. I do not follow his lead.

Checking my apps as I wander, I notice a couple of neat tricks. The Google app is pulling in useful phrases depending on my location, for instance – ‘Could I have the check?’ is offered in Spanish when I’m in a bar. It also suggests photo opps (with thumbnail photos) within a 10 or 12-minute radius. 

Battery life is becoming an issue, however. By 6pm, I’m down to the final few minutes on the Nexus 6.  This isn’t a problem exclusive to Google, or Android devices, of course – it’s a problem with technology in travel. Power sources are easy to come by in Madrid. In the mountains, not so much.

As the battery dies, I begin using the device more sparingly. I also find myself looking around more, and reacting to what’s in front of my face. With my eyes open, I notice ruby-red shreds of ham in tapas bars. I sense the rise and fall of Madrid’s cobbled streets. I step into random bars and boutiques. I refer back to my list of Twitter tips, and chance on a cracking market – the Mercado de San Ildefonso (mercadodesanildefonso.com) on Calle de Fuencarral.

Read more: Travel Tricks: How to get the most out of your holiday

Thursday, 8.30pm: Devices at dinner

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Helpful hints from the Google app

Helpful hints from Google

At Mercado de la Reina (mercadodelareina.com) on Calle Gran Via, I hit up my (recharged) phone for Google reviews. Anyone with a Google account can write reviews and allocate a star rating, but of course there is no editor… as with TripAdvisor, you need to be careful what you trust.  

Google prioritises your friends’ reviews, and personally, I’m happy to take user-generated content as part of the picture - but I’ll always cross-reference with other, real-life sources before making a decision. 174 reviews of Mercado de la Reina give it 3.9 out of a possible five stars and, by and large, I’d concur with that. A chilled and gorgeously tomatoey gazpacho is topped with little strips of Jamón Ibérico; a beef entrecote is red and moreish. Mercado de la Reina also does a good line in gin, and like all Madrid hotspots, will take you right into the wee hours. 

Friday, 9.15am: On yer bike

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Pól Ó Conghaile hits the saddle in Madrid. Photo: João Nogueira

Pedal power in Madrid

First up on Day 2 is an electric bike tour with Mobeo.es.

Our group meets at a square around the corner from my hotel, familiarising ourselves with the bikes before taking off on a tour of the big sights – the Royal Palace, the Reina Sofia, Prado Museum and so on. Madrid isn’t a great cycling city - a lack of bike lanes throws up a few hairy moments - but there is safety in numbers. Our group proceeds like a shoal of awkward fish.

As we pedal (or when we pause, rather) I use Google to read up on the bike company and graze on its reviews. Apparently, the Google app’s ‘word error rate’ is now just 8pc – i.e. it is 92pc accurate. Google Translate, however, is not so sharp.

Read more: 20 essential travel apps

Friday, 11am: Mercado de San Miguel

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Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid

The Mercado de San Miguel

Google Translate will be “my new best friend”, Google predicts.

Am I alone in finding that a wee bit creepy? I don’t speak Spanish, however, so I’m up for giving it a whirl. The app provides free translation in 90 languages, processing over a billion translations a day… plus, you can speak into the phone, and it will deliver voice translations on the spot.

Google says you can have conversations with locals “with ease – just pass your phone back and forth to communicate naturally and effectively” (Tip: avoid data charges by downloading a language to use offline before you travel), but it really doesn’t work as well as that. Translations give the gist of an exchange fairly successfully, but the grammar is routinely botched.

The function that most surprises me is ‘Word Lens’.

In essence, this uses the phone’s camera to scan and translate written text before your eyes. The first time I try it, waving the camera over a menu, I get goosebumps. It feels like the future (see video above) in my hands. As I play about however, its infancy become increasingly clear. Word Lens gives the gist of a translation – more than enough to get you out of a pickle - but its mis-readings and grammatical absurdities can teeter close to comedy.

The Mercado de San Miguel’ is variously translated as ‘Delicate of Saint Michel’ and ‘Mercado Gag Saint Michael’, for example. Albóndigas Pollo is ‘Meatballs chicken’. And so on.

These are developing technologies, however. In the coming years, given the resources and ambition Google has at its disposal (to date, it has invested more than 1,000 person-years in developing its search algorithm), I’ve no doubt but that it will improve. Given time, in fact, I'm pretty sure I'll take Translate for granted in the same way that I do Google Maps.

For the moment, however, it lacks the human touch.

Friday, 12.30pm: NO Restaurant

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Jamon Iberico at NO Restaurant, Madrid
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Jamon Iberico at NO Restaurant, Madrid

Jamón Iberico at NO Restaurant

Thursday’s lunch is booked for the sharp and snappy NO Restaurant (norestaurant.es) on Calle Puigcerda. It’s got a rating of 4.3 by Google reviewers, and I enjoy a lovely, velvety tuna tartar and a tangy seafood risotto among other dishes.

The menu is in English, so I don’t need Translate. Instead, I use the sit-down to refuel and plot out my last few hours in Madrid. Again, Google Maps proves a winner, starring the remaining sites to see – the Royal Palace, for instance - and estimating walking distances so I can be back at the hotel in time to meet my airport transfer. Yup, it’s hard to fault this one.

Friday, 15.45pm: Homeward bound

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Checking in at Madrid's Barajas Airport.

Checking in at Madrid's Barajas Airport

As my 36-hour experiment comes to a close, I pull my return flight details up in the Google app and take some time to let the experience sink in.

Google is taking travel seriously. That much is clear. We already use it almost unthinkingly – to search, research, get around. We use it to navigate, translate, communicate, share and pay (Google Wallet). Google mightn’t have the traction it wants in the travel space just yet, but it’s getting there, and the incentives are huge - by the end of 2015, travel and tourism will be worth $7,860 billion, or 10pc of global GDP, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

It also has the kind of time and resources others can only dream of.

It’s not all plain sailing, of course. I sometimes feel that Google’s eagerness to please and innovate sees it rushing out products before they are ready enough to be genuinely useful. I feel the same way about Word Lens as I do about Google Glass, for instance – both are great ideas, and I’m sure they’ll be ubiquitous in the future, but for now they just feel geeky.

My other sense is more romantic, or nostalgic. When technologies work for travel, they can be amazing. They can actively facilitate your curiosity. But over-reliance can also be a distraction. There’s a fine line between technology augmenting the travel experience, and putting you at a remove from the real world. Using Google as a guide, I left less to chance.

Of course, I can easily switch off. I can say ‘OK Google’ when it suits, and power down the phone when it doesn’t. I guess the trick is finding the balance. Knowing when to log in, and when to get lost.

NB: Pól travelled to Madrid as a guest of Google.

Read more:

The Getaway: Madrid Time flies: Six ways the Apple Watch could change the way you travel 

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