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Originally published Saturday, February 15, 2014 at 7:03 PM

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Google tools that work for travelers

The New York Times

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Much like people who rely on GPS navigation never learn their way around town, this... MORE


“OK, Glass,” I said, peering at a photo of a Spanish street sign through Google Glass, the lensless augmented-reality “glasses.” “Translate this.”

I gently tapped, then swiped my pointer finger along a narrow touch pad on the side of the Glass frame as if scrolling through the contact list on my iPhone — only I was scrolling through the names of Romance languages, each of which appeared on a tiny virtual screen in the distance, in line with my right eye.

When the word “Spanish” materialized, I tapped the side of the glasses to select it, a process you need do only once to lock in a language for an entire trip. Seconds later, the street sign was in English: “Attention, area of construction. No trespassing.”

Translating words without tapping on a smartphone or consulting a dictionary is among the many potential uses of Google Glass for travelers.

Is Glass — which at the moment costs $1,500 and can be bought only by invitation from Google — perfect? No. Yet it could be extremely useful for travelers once it’s ripe (it will be available for purchase without an invitation this year).

In the meantime, I also took a closer look at other, more democratic and affordable Google travel tools: apps that work for iPhones and Androids.

Google Voice Search: For the uninitiated, Voice Search is in the free Google Search app for iPhone and Android. Just press the microphone icon on the app and rattle off your demands:

“Show me hotels near the Taj Mahal in India” or “What are the hours of the Prado Museum in Madrid?” I received swift verbal answers, as well as Google search results.

Still, expect some hiccups. I couldn’t get the app to understand certain phrases like “Uffizi Gallery” and “Ethiopian restaurants.”

But then, wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to bother asking for basic information like museum hours or flight-departure times? With this next tool — Google Now — you don’t.

Google Now: Google Now (also available in the Google Search app) uses your phone’s location history and other personal data like your Google calendar entries, Gmail and Web search history to offer you information on digital “cards” when it thinks you need it most.

For instance, I recently opened the app at the end of a workday and it noted without my asking that the subway train I take home was departing in three minutes.

Allow the app to access your search history and it will offer information based on your recent searches, like movie or flight-departure times. And if you received a confirmation for a hotel or flight reservation in your Gmail inbox, those notifications will also show up.

Privacy-minded travelers take note: If you’re concerned about an app tracking your whereabouts, search history and Amazon orders, this is not the tool for you.

Auto Awesome: After a while even the most picturesque vacation photos can be a bore. Auto Awesome can help. Say you’ve taken a series of five or more photos in rapid succession: Auto Awesome will combine them into a short animated image — all without your lifting a finger. If you’ve taken multiple group shots, Auto Awesome will choose the most flattering images of each person and create a single photo where everyone looks their best. Again, for some users this will raise concerns about privacy.

Gmail Offline: Wi-Fi is not always available when traveling, but that doesn’t mean you can’t polish off some work. Gmail Offline, which lets you draft and respond to emails without an Internet connection (The emails are sent when you’re back in a Wi-Fi zone), is not a novel concept but is nonetheless useful.

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