OK, Google: Now app offers glimpse of hands-free future of search

We take a hands-on look at Google Now's new tools for Android and iOS -- including a new Reminders feature -- and its desktop search counterpart. But to get the most from them, you'll have to keep searching.

Google Now's new Reminder feature works well. Screenshot by Joshua Goldman/CNET

Google Search was already scarily good at knowing what you wanted -- sometimes before you even knew what you wanted. And now it'll talk back to you.

At Google I/O 2013, the company announced an update to its Google Now search app for Android and iOS as well as enhanced voice search for Chrome and Chrome OS.

For Google Now on Android and iOS, you'll start seeing six new card types, bringing the total to 23. Four of them seem entirely intended to sell you stuff from Google Play, displaying new music, video games, books, and TV episodes. It, of course, makes the suggestions based on past searches and purchases and e-mails or anywhere else Google can mine the data.

For example, I did a search a couple of months ago for the TV show "Supernatural" (I couldn't believe it was still on the air), and when I updated the Google Now app, lo and behold, up popped a card letting me know episodes were available.

The other two cards are more helpful. One is for public transit so that when you're near a bus stop or a subway station, Google Now will let you know the next bus or train. Useful; but perhaps more useful to a larger portion of the population is the Reminders card.

Need to remember to call someone at a specific date and time? Just say "Google" followed by the person's name and when you want the reminder. Google Now will then pop up a card letting you view the reminder, make adjustments to it, and set it. When the reminder goes off, you'll get notified with an alarm, a card in Google Now, and a picture of a hand with a string tied around a finger in your notifications bar.

Picking a time for a reminder is handy, but you can also pick a place to trigger those reminders (assuming you have location services turned on). Keep forgetting to pick something up at the grocery store? Set a reminder to go off when you walk in the place.

By the way, all of these things use hot-word detection, which simply means you can say "Google" to launch voice search. Hot-word detection now carries over to desktop browser search as well, so you can have a full-on conversation with your computer.

Johanna Wright, Google's vice president of Search & Assist for Mobile, demonstrated some of the new search intelligence by going through the steps of planning a trip to Santa Cruz, Calif., by asking a series of questions (see the video at the bottom of this post for the full demo). I reproduced this using her first three questions with Google Now for Android, replacing Santa Cruz with New York City.

Google's responses were accurate for the first two. (Results are spoken, given as knowledge graph cards, or as regular Google search results.) It was the third question that stumped Google, or at least didn't turn in the results that Wright got in her demo.

Screenshot by Joshua Goldman/CNET

When Wright asked Google, "How far is it from here?" the results were directions from her current location to the location in Santa Cruz she wanted to visit.

When I asked the same questions regarding a trip to the Empire State Building from my office, it didn't end as well. However, asking Google, "How far is the Empire State Building from here?" got the right results: a spoken answer with a map with directions and travel time. (Speech output can be set for always, informative only, or hands-free only.) So, it missed the "it" part, but got the "here."

I have no doubt that had I done similar searches in Google over and over again in the past that Google would've returned the correct results without a hiccup. Again, Now seems to learn from your searches -- across all your devices -- and while it might not quite understand your natural speech patterns immediately, it likely will get there sooner rather than later. And instead of clicking on boxes and typing in search terms, we'll just be having conversations with our computers and devices.

It'll be great.

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