Sunday, March 20, 2011

SXSW 2011: Google's Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer, vice president of consumer products at Google, spoke at SXSW 2011 about new products Google is developing. She focused on location-based services. She started her speech with a demonstration of some kind of Google service that shows skiers on mountain slopes. Coming in late, I wasn't sure if this was a new Google Earth feature, or a new product. Superimposed on the live video of skiers was an augmented reality view that provided the information about the ski routes and the weather. Seeing tiny, ant-like skiers zipping around on the slopes, Marissa Mayer emitted a low, warm chuckle, so infectious that the audience giggled with her. Or maybe they laughed at the contrast of a Google VP being amused by the little silly things in life, such as ant-like humans bustling around like particles in Brownian motion.

Augmented reality -- applications that overlay information about objects around you over their images -- can give you a richer, more detailed experience of those objects than real life itself can. Google Art project is an example of that. Google Art images of famous paintings, such as Van Gogh's "Starry Night" were made with a giga-pixel camera, said Marissa Mayer. This lets you zoom into any part of it, and examine every square inch, every brushstroke as close as you would never be able in a museum.

Marissa Mayer at her keynote speech at SXSW Marissa Mayer at her keynote speech at SXSW

Augmented reality is no doubt a hot trend in location-based services, but Mayer spent more time on context-based discovery. That's a new direction of Google's location-based services. If you are standing in front of the Capitol (to non-Austinites, that's where Texas Legislature meets), and whip out your phone, that doesn't always mean you want information about the Capitol. If you are a first-time visitor to Austin, you may indeed be interested in its history, the date it was built, its architectural style, etc. But if you are an Austinite, you probably just want to check your email. So context is the key.

Then there was time for questions and answers. A guy in the audience asked Marissa Mayer if Google Maps will ever have customer service. Currently it takes up to a year to remove "deadly routes" from Google Maps, he said. Given that it has 8 or 9 million users, Google Maps ought to really do a better job of that. Marissa replied that customer support would be a good idea, as she herself has ended up in wrong places following Google Maps routes. From that I inferred that "deadly routes" meant "dead" routes, or ones that no longer exist -- as opposed to routes with high lethal accident counts. :-)

More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.

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