First published January 29, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Fellow Search Insider David Berkowitz (David, it’s been too long since we riffed on each other’s columns!) allowed his curiosity to wander down some fascinating potential directions search may evolve in a couple of recent columns, first looking at Ford’s plans for integrating GPS-enabled voice search in all its vehicles, and then speculating how one search could be launched in 17 different ways, both today and in the future. One of his speculations is what I wanted to explore further today:
“Instead of entering a query, Penny may be able to put on a special set of glasses and scan her surroundings for store names and reviews. The headsets and eyewear from Vuzix now link up to other portable devices such as iPods and camcorders, but they keep including more functionality within the gadgets themselves.”
Sound far-fetched? Not according to the MOBVIS (Mobile Attentive Interfaces in Urban Scenarios) project in Europe. In a nutshell, the MOBVIS technology allows you to take a picture of your surroundings with your camera-equipped mobile device, then MOBVIS recognizes aspects of your environment and places hyperlinks on the items where it has relevant information. So, if you take a picture of a bus stop, MOBVIS can retrieve what buses stop there and what the schedule is. Assuming city buses are equipped with GPS and telemetric units, it could also tell you how long you have to wait for the next bus.
Currently, the MOBVIS project is visually mapping and testing in three European cities; Graz, Austria; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Darmstadt, Germany). Geo-referenced imagery tied to streetscapes from these three centers is online and available to the scientific community. One has to imagine that Google would be paying particular attention to this, as it’s a natural tie-in with its Street View project.
Say Cheese and Search…
So, let’s imagine what MOBVIS could do. First of all, it could be an incredible interactive guide, bringing mountains of information about your surroundings to just one click away on your mobile device. Dining reviews, items on sale in local stores, entertainment schedules and reviews, transit schedules, self-guided tours, could all live on the other side of the MOBVIS linking icon. Now, all that is theoretically available through GPS positioning, but in urban pedestrian applications, GPS has some functional limitations. It’s difficult to get an accurate enough fix to narrow your location to even a half block radius, especially in the downtown “urban valley” core. MOBVIS allows you to restrict your information quest to exactly what you want to include in your viewfinder, making it a much more specific query tool. Also, MOBVIS could be tremendously useful for the visually impaired, allowing them to scan their surroundings and retrieve information.
Making Reality More Useful
What MOBVIS does, along with all the other search permutations mentioned by David, is point the way of search’s future. I’ve always said that search is not about the destination, whether it’s Google, Yahoo or Live. It’s about the functional engine that sits behind the portal. It’s about the ability to link people with relevant information and, more importantly, timely functionality. Search is about letting people do what they have to do. MOBVIS is just one more way to establish the link. It’s a pretty amazing way that opens up some intriguing possibilities, but what makes MOBVIS exciting is its potential for helping us navigate our current reality. David’s 17 ways to search, Aaron Goldman’s past speculations about ambient findability, and my ongoing exploration of search as an expression of us reaching for our goals all share a common theme: search enhances our ability to do things.
In a recent post, Silicon Valley writer Sarah Lacy speculated that Google might be nearing the end of its reign as online’s Golden Child. She used some dubious logic about usage and traffic to posit that the mantle is ready to be passed to Twitter or Facebook. What she missed is the central premise of Google’s mission. It’s not about driving traffic to Google.com. It’s about connecting us with what we’re looking for. What Google has been doing through Google Maps, Street View, Universal Search, personalization, Google Mobile and yes, even the lowly but ubiquitous Google Toolbar, is weaving together the functionality needed to deliver on that mission. It remains to be seen whether Google will be successful in doing so, but it’s certainly well in the lead. And that’s the power of Google’s potential. It’s about providing the infrastructure to connect all the dots, both online and in the real world. It’s not about being one of the dots.