OK Google, tell me about a trip to a Google-centric universe

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Last week an invite arrived in my inbox from Google to see a new… thing… the company had put together. It wasn’t hugely specific, so I was intrigued – just what is Google doing in London? Today, I found out.

At one o’clock I joined a tour of assembled hacks as we took a trip through what was essentially a piece of interactive theatre – designed for journalists – to tell us about how great Google is.

After waiting in a colour-coordinated ‘living room’, we were taken along a corridor to a sign asking a question: What is the population of Taipei? The idea was to show us how Google’s voice search works – and how it can be activated on Android simply by saying “OK Google…”.

taiwan

The reason for this was that we were to become unwitting participants in some theatre. We headed through the door and the room was decorated like Taiwan – complete with a market stall selling umbrellas. But there was a problem! The man at the stall only spoke Chinese! As luck would have it, Google had a solution in the form of the Google Translate app – the man was able to speak into the app, and it was able to act as an intermediary. Whilst the app has been available for a while, it was an impressive demo as the Taiwanese guy (who stayed in character throughout) was also able to draw Chinese characters on screen, and have the app translate them into English words.

After we’d ‘bought’ an umbrella each, it started to rain. Yes, Google had installed a sprinkler system into the ceiling for the event.

cooking

Soon it was on to the next room, which had been lavishly decorated to look like a kitchen. “Everybody grab an apron” we were instructed. When the sous-chef appeared, doing his best Gordon Ramsey impression, I hid at the back – I don’t like audience participation at the best of times, but the rest of the hacks went through an impromptu cookery lesson. As luck would have it, Google Search was on hand to answer any difficult cooking queries. As it works hands free (“OK Google”) – you can have your hands in the middle of a bowl and still get answers – and you can even use it to set a timer.

filmprem

The next room was a film premiere where we had to take photos of the red carpet. In a lucky contrivance, there wasn’t a DSLR – but luckily we had a Nexus 5 each with Google’s camera app. Here we were asked to take photos and try the different filters and tweaking options. As a man in a suit and a guy dressed as a tiger (!) got out of a car and walked along the makeshift red carpet, we shot some photos and used the “Lens Blur” effect to highlight the right bits.

googlebeam

Perhaps the coolest thing here though was the demo of Google Beam – using NFC on Android devices, you can simply touch two phones together, and hit the screen, and it will create a bluetooth connection to ‘beam’ the content to the other phone. This works for photos, web pages and even maps – and is very slick. Here’s hoping Apple can do something similar (and cross-platform) with the iPhone 6.

londonvan

In the next room, we were in London (I mean, we were in London, but the room was dressed to look like the outside, in London). Just as the Google representative was about to start talking, a ‘cyclist’ burst in! He was looking for directions and somewhere for lunch. Again – in a remarkable coincidence the Google PR people were able to use Google Maps to assist him – making full use of the relatively new “Nearby” feature to look for somewhere nice for lunch.

For us though, it was time to pile into the VW-camper van to head to Paris. And how would we get there? Google Maps, of course.

google-cardboard-9921

In ‘Paris’, was perhaps the coolest thing we saw today (from the perspective a tech journalist, anyway): Google Cardboard. Whilst Facebook is trying to make something of Oculus, and Samsung has its £200 Gear VR, Google’s answer has been to build Google Cardboard: Literally a cardboard caddy for phone, to mount it in front of your face – with a couple of lenses in between. The idea is that using your phone’s gyroscopes and processing power, you can have a bit of a virtual reality experience. There were a few demos on offer, but the one that caught my attention was a simulation of driving a Streetview car around Paris. The demo had stitched together a tonne of Streetview images, and you go on a trip – able to look in any direction, with the pictures shifting when you move your head. Whilst – as Google admitted – it is very much a toy, it is an interesting demonstration of where this technology could eventually lead.

train

After Paris, we got straight back on the ‘Eurostar’ and in a set mocked up like a train were shown the various business applications centred around Google Drive. Here we edited a document together and uploaded a photo, following a video hangout with the ‘boss’ character. At one point, as we ‘entered’ the ‘tunnel’, the lights switched off, and someone’s phone had disappeared: What a brilliant excuse it was to show us Google’s remote-wipe capabilities to keep data secure.

And then that was that – we ended in another living room set, where a couple of Google engineers were on hand to answer questions, and I was able to reflect on what a bizarre experience it had been. The whole demo – which must have been incredibly expensive, both with the lavish set, number of people employed to make it happen and the rental of a central London exhibition space for a few days – was built for only a handful of journalists. There were six people in our group – and it was only one of three tours today.

The aim was clearly to impress the not-tech-specific publications that were there, and may not live and breath Google’s suite of apps on a daily basis – but even for a seasoned gadget nerd like myself it was interesting to see what I guess is Google’s vision for a Google utopia. Privacy and data roaming charges be damned – the future present certainly looks a lot more convenient.

James O’Malley

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