SXSW Interactive: Google’s Mobile Future, and the Elusive ‘Power of Here’

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There was something of a collective shrug at the Austin Convention Center Friday afternoon, following the much-anticipated presentation by Google’s Marissa Mayer. But that said, there was irony to be found in the lackluster response, serving as yet further proof of just how dominant the company has become, in providing and filtering the world’s information. Each and every time Google takes to the stage, it would appear, we expect an society-altering advancement.

This was precisely the speculation prior to the speech, that there might be the announcement of a major new product or initiative. Instead, Mayer – the recently appointed head of mobile and geolocation – ran through a checklist of all the ways that modern life has already been rendered more educated and efficient thanks to her company. While audiences at sxsw tend to look ahead, Mayer’s speech felt like something of a recap, with only a hint of what’s to come.

The evolving Google mission, Mayer said, is to achieve the “Power of Here,” referring to the ongoing fusion of current Google products with mobile, location-based, real-time uses. In other words: Utilizing a handful of mobile-oriented apps, like Google Goggles, Hotpot, and Google Maps for Mobile to make the most out of location-based information. (More at Techland: The 18 Best Android Apps)

There are the examples of Hotpot, offering restaurant recommendations while synchronizing with a user’s current coordinates. Or the use of Google Maps in avoiding traffic congestion (Mayer calculated that the traffic function has already saved drivers around the world enough time in traffic that it would add up to two saved years every day – an ambiguous stat until you realize it can be converted to $250,000 in saved fuel per year).

Hiding in the middle of the presentation was a rather startling fact: During two 2010 holidays, the use of Google Maps for Mobile eclipsed the use of Google Maps on laptops or desktops. One might take it for granted, but we are quickly moving to a mobile-based relationship with the web (if not already there). And that shift will have profound ramifications for a search engine. While we will still be doing conventional searches while sitting at our desks, how will our searches evolve and change when we’re on the go? How will our search engines demand differ when we’re standing on a street corner? Or driving a car?

Both Mayer and Google are clearly moving to provide the answers before we even think of asking the questions. For instance, it will soon no longer be enough to merely provide a user with a street map. We need more actionable intel. So on Friday, Mayer first demonstrated the new Google Maps traffic feature, showing how Google can help you avoid congestion, and then the topographical features that will soon allow a Google Maps user to hover over a city with textured, 3D renderings of buildings sprouting up from street level. Implication: You will now be able to recognize an intersection by its skyline.

Google Goggles will allow for the instant accessing of information about storefronts and neighborhoods, drawing in Hotpot recommendations from friends in your network. Mayer also takes this concept of synchronicity one step further, detailing a scenario in which your mobile calendar, working in conjunction with both Google Maps and traditional search, could remind you of an upcoming flight, dictate departure time based on traffic congestion between your home and the airport, all the while instructing you on what to pack based on the weather conditions at your destination.

The next evolution of Google, it would appear, is the mastering of how to take all the necessary data and guide a user towards making more informed decisions. To predict and pre-bundle usable information; To think one step ahead of the user.

And yet there seemed to be relatively little concern among audience members about the increasing reach of the Google empire. One audience question addressed the issue of who owns the content posted to a site like Hotpot – wondering about when user-generated content becomes bundled as Google content.

I, for one, was most conflicted about Mayer’s recap of the recent Google Street View project that took place at many of the world’s top art museums. She demonstrated how Google users can now zoom in on a high-res photo of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” digging down to the individual brush strokes at a level of detail never before available. Further, people who would never be able to travel to see the painting in person can now take a virtual stroll through the gallery.

But I wondered: When does human experience become altered by engaging almost everything through a computer screen? Is doing a microscopic scan across Van Gogh the same as standing in front of the painting, at normal size? Another audience member brought up a similar point: Is being able to instantly access restaurant recommendations in a given neighborhood preempting our own chances at discovering things for ourselves? Of being off the grid, exploring?

Mayer seemed to dismiss the question, suggesting instead that the more information we have allows us to be more efficient, leaving us with even more time to explore.

Still, it’s a debate worth having – what’s being lost in a Google era, even as we’re growing more informed, connected and efficient? How is our society and lifestyle being subtly, but irrevocably, altered?

I gave these questions, and my corresponding concerns, serious contemplation as Mayer wrapped up her remarks. Then I Google Mapped the location of my next event, and wrote gmails all the way there.

More at Techland: The Best Apps to Help You Prepare for Earthquakes