Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Using Google Now in Japan

Putting aside the "butter," one of the more interesting enhancements provided by Android 4.1 jellybean is Google Now, which is designed to show you the information you want to know before you realize you need it. This is accomplished though the recent changes to Google's Terms of Service, about which much was said, both positive and negative. In short, Google uses a single ToS across all products, and data are shared between them.

Great Potential

Many of Google's new mobile services are launched for limited locations and locales, and may or may not work to varying degrees depending on your particular area. Fortunately, Now works quite well in Japan, right, um, now (couldn't resist). After upgrading to JB, you can try it out by sliding up on the lock screen to the Google icon, or tapping the desktop search bar. You'll need to opt in.

Latitude users should immediately see the potential benefits because your home and work address are already known to the system. The first card that was displayed for me was showing an accurate route from my home to work. Also, In the settings there is an option for using public transport, as well as for displaying cards for nearby stations that include departure times. Based on check-in history, accurate transit information also appeared for frequently visited locations.

Room for Improvement

However, there is of course room for improvement, and the relevance of suggestions is ultimately limited by the quality of your location data - if your position is consistently off by several kilometers, Now will be useless.

The degree to which Latitude is tapped for information is unclear. Without doubt, spatial data, such as work, home, and location history, are pulled from Latitude, but it doesn't seem that any temporal information is included. While many of us enjoy our izakaya of choice, 8 am on a Monday morning in not an appropriate time to suggest a visit, first and foremost because they're closed. Conversely, I don't care that it's 45 minutes to work on a Sunday morning.

One user, who frequents a microbrewery very close to his home, is being taunted (dangerously late in the work day) with transit directions to the bar. We've yet to determine whether Latitude thinks the microbrewery is him home, and if so, whether Latitude would be incorrect to do so.

The beer at T.Y. Harbor is indeed good.
One minute is not enough time to navigate
Shibuya Station.
I expect improvements in the timing of suggestions, as this data is already available from existing Latitude users, and easily collected with for new users over time. Google has also stated that results should improve over time.

There are several other issues with public transit cards.

First off, Google's walking directions inside Japanese stations are rather sparse, and didn't even exist until recently. Unlike Navitime (are they even still around?), Google's calculations assume a train is boarded directly from the street-level entrance. Boarding a train departing in 4 minutes from a train station that is a 4 minute walk away is completely unrealistic. If Google lacks the data to make realistic suggestions in this regard, extra time should be padded into the result.

Secondly, results presented in relative terms are ambiguous. "Departing in 10 minutes" from when? The cards do not automatically update, so if you go back to Now a minute or two later, you'd have to remember the exact time at which the card was first presented. A simple timestamp on the card, 7:32 am for example, would give this information a longer shelf life. As is, the minute after you view a card suggesting a transit route, it becomes irrelevant due to lack of context. However, automatically refreshing the data would be even more annoying.

Apparently you call all this up with voice commands using the hotword "google," but I can't get anything but a google search using phrases like "directions to home." Apparently the voice search requires setting both the UI and Now voice settings to English, though this still doesn't work for me.

All in all, it looks promising and can be used right away in Japan.


  1. Google NOW seems to work very well with voice commands for me. First of all, it is able to understand with 80-90% accuracy (compared to around 30-40% accuracy when I tried Siri last year).

    In addition, for seaches like "How to go to Tokyo", "How to go to home" - it directly shows the route along with the navigation. For searches like "Where can I get pasta" it is directly showing locations along with reviews etc. Saying something like "Delta airlines flight from Tokyo to San Francisco" brough a nice status card of today's flight along with the google search results.

    I have set voice and UI to English (US). In addition have also set it to always search (instead of

    On a separate note, since you are using Nexus S, have you been able to use the NFC for any meaningful purpose in Japan other than check Suica/Pasmo balance and history.

  2. It is fairly obvious that Google Now isn't ready for Japan, but no doubt some good people in Google Japan will be making changes. It feels like a very, very powerful tool, just not quite there.

    Can't wait until an API is out - I'd love to have package tracking, Japanese sports, favorite TV shows, etc on there too.