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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Google is working on two projects, one of which is about to make its debut, while the other is years away.
Google’s next big project is Google Glass. It’s a device that you wear like an eyeglass frame with a relatively unobtrusive camera and heads up display attached.
The first units have already gone out to developers to see what they can do with this gadget. And based on what I’ve seen, all of the hype still underplays its capabilities. Google Glass could be among those technological achievements that rank with the Internet, smartphones, personal computers, the ATM and the microwave oven.
It will enable us to share the world as we see it in real time with whomever we wish. It will enable us to be somewhere, look at it and immediately have information about what we’re looking at displayed in front of an eye. You’ll be able to take pictures or record video just by asking. You’ll be able to get directions and information just by asking. The potential for how this could change the way we interact with the world and the people around us is virtually unlimited.
And finally, a look to the past as predictor of the future.
At the 1939 World’s Fair, in New York’s Flushing Meadows Park, the most popular exhibit was Futurama, built by General Motors. It envisioned the world of 1960. While it accurately predicted the development of the Interstate highway system, it was wrong in figuring that we’d all be driving radio-controlled cars that would keep us safe from the drivers around us.
Now, Google is out to make that prediction come true in the form of a self-driving car. With 79 million boomers on the road with worsening eyesight and slower reaction times, a self-driving car could be a real game changer.
Google says, "Our main goal with self-driving cars is to transform mobility — to improve people’s lives by making driving safer, more enjoyable and more efficient. Over 1.2 million people are killed in traffic accidents worldwide every year, and we think self-driving technology can help significantly reduce that number."
So why then does Google, fundamentally an information company, feel it’s appropriate to step into the field? The company’s response: "At heart, driving is an information problem. We’ve been teaching our self-driving cars to intelligently deal with all the signals and information that we normally process every day. We've successfully driven over half a million miles in self-driving mode across a wide variety of terrain and road conditions .... Self-driving cars never get sleepy or distracted, and their ability to make driving decisions 20 times per second helps them run smartly. Already there are indications that a self-driving car can operate more safely than an average driver."
Google acknowledges it still hasn’t figured out exactly how this new technology is going to be implemented. That’s still down the road.
Google began life as a search engine. And Sieberg says, "Search is still the front door to your information world." And Google is still by far the most popular search engine.
That gives it enormous power over how information is filtered and presented to us. How often do you do a Google search and see that there are hundreds of thousands of results? But the chances are you’re only going to look at the first page or two of those results. How do you know that the best answer to your question might be on page 243 of the results? You don’t.
With the exception of its hardware products, like the Chromebook or the Nexus phones and tablets, most of what Google provides is free to the average consumer. But because Google controls the way information is filtered and presented, we’re still paying a price.
In the long run, we can expect that Google (or some yet-to-exist competitor) may come up with a way of giving us results based on the context of our own experiences. So when you do that search, your computer, or your personal cloud, will know every search you’ve done before, every hotel you’ve stayed at, every flight you’ve taken, every address you’ve been routed to, every book or gadget you bought online. Will that get you more relevant search results? Perhaps. But that too could come at a price — your privacy and anonymity in the digital world.
Unlike Apple, Microsoft, IBM and almost every other technology company, Google has joined the ranks of brands that have entered the contemporary lexicon as verbs. Dictionary.com offers this definition of google: "to search the Internet for information about (a person, topic, etc.): We googled the new applicant to check her background."
That verb alone is emblematic of the power and influence that Google continues to gain in the information age. We might only hope that Google will keep making life easier for us even as the torrent of information becomes ever more complex.