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Google — It Ain’t Just Search

The search engine Google draws its name from the term "Googol," defined as the number 1 followed by 100 zeros. That’s a big number. And these days it seems like that’s almost the number of products coming out of Google. That makes it challenging to create a report card on how the technology giant is meeting the needs of boomers and seniors.

My son and I are planning to bike ride on a trail we’ve never ridden so I use Google Search to find a description of the trail. I use Google Earth to get a sense of the terrain. Then I use Google Maps to get the location of the trail parking area. I grab my Android smartphone (the operating system created by Google).

I turn it on and Google Now immediately shows me the results of the Web searches that I just made on my computer and offers to provide directions to the trail parking lot. I click on Google Maps and get spoken and visual turn-by-turn directions.

After a great ride, my son and I are ready for some refreshments so we pick up the smartphone and use Google Voice Search to find the closest ice cream shop.

After we have a burger and a sundae, Google Maps navigates us back home. Once home I check my Gmail account for new email. Then I pick up my Google Nexus 7 tablet to read a couple of chapters from a novel I downloaded from an online bookstore. Before calling it a night I check on Google News once more for the latest headlines.

Finally I look at Google Analytics to see how many people are visiting my website. And that’s just one day in the life of Google and me.

Google has taken steps to make many of its products accessible. According to Google technologist Daniel Sieberg, "All Google products are designed to make life easier for our users — the idea of making them smart is consistent across the board. That is a key part of all the products we create."

The company is placing a major emphasis on using voice as a primary way of interacting with its products. It has enhanced its voice search capabilities.

They were first introduced on Android-based smartphones and tablets, but have recently been extended to Apple iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) as well as laptops and desktop computers. So if you use voice search on a smartphone to ask for the closest ATM, to calculate the 15 percent tip for your restaurant bill, or how far to Philadelphia, you get these:

Google innovation (Courtesy Google)

Google is placing emphasis on using voice as a primary way of interacting with its products. — Courtesy Google

I found that in a side-by-side test with Apple’s Siri voice interface, Google’s voice search was considerably more accurate and responsive.

For most of us, it’s a lot easier to interact with our devices by speaking to them and listening to the results. That’s especially true if you’re trying to do it on a relatively small-screen smartphone.Google has done its own studies and concludes that voice searching is three times faster than typing.

Among the company’s other findings:

  • More than half of the U.S. population owns smartphones with voice capabilities;
  • Two in three people in a survey Google recently conducted are aware of these voice capabilities;
  • Of those people, 1 in 3 uses voice search at least once a month and 1 in 5 uses it daily 

Sieberg pointed out several other Google products that boomers and seniors might find particularly useful:

Google+

This is Google’s answer to Facebook. But it has some components that Facebook doesn’t. For one, there are Google Hangouts, where you can put together your own small groups to share interests and pictures. But you can also use it for video chats.

And it competes with Skype in allowing you to put together a video chat for several people, making it easy to bring far-flung family members together in a virtual living room. Sieberg says it’s the easiest way for his own father to interact with his 2-year-old daughter.

Google Street View

As we age, we need to be increasingly concerned about access to places we’d like to go. Sieberg points out that with Google Street View you can easily see if that hotel you’re thinking about staying at has a flight of stairs out front, or a wheelchair ramp.

And if you’d like to experience someplace that physically you just can’t get to, like the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Google is sending out teams of Trekkers loaded with backpacks full of 15 cameras to record complete views of some of those places.

Google Indoor Maps

This program is rapidly expanding to show the layouts of places such as airports, shopping malls and even big department stores. That can save time and effort in finding anything from a bathroom in the mall to the right gate in an airport.

YouTube Captions

Google says it now has the capability of automatically adding captions to 135 million YouTube videos. And viewers have already accessed captions more than a million and a half times.

Speakit! 

This is a text to voice extension for the Google Chrome Internet Browser. Once installed (a very easy process). You can highlight any text on a Web page and your computer will read it out loud for you. Chrome also allows you to increase text size from the browser menu.

Google Now

Google started this service on Android devices, and has now expanded it to Apple iOS devices as well. It enables you to set up cards on the opening screen of your smartphone to give you instantly useful information. So for example, if I search for an address on my desktop computer, when I turn on my smartphone it automatically tells me the driving time to that location and offers to give me turn-by-turn directions (if I have Google Maps installed). It will also give me the local weather, or even the latest sports scores.

Next page: Google Glass and a self-driving car! »

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Video Extra

DOES TECHNOLOGY DEHUMANIZE US? People are not substituting technology for "real" life, says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. If you're social and successful in the analog world, that can carry over to the digital realm, and vice versa.

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