Ben Ross: All the tech in the world can't beat seeing it for yourself

Something to Declare

It was my birthday last week. Perhaps Google knew this, because I was invited – along with, it has to be said, several other journalists – to visit the Google House in central London. Here, they told me, I would be plied with party food and told about the future. How kind.

Google has converted a very large, very posh house into a tech-stuffed showcase for its Google tools, among them bits of software that should make everyone's travelling life a little easier. From the outside, apart from some bright Google-y colours above the door, it looked like all the other buildings on the street. Inside, though, it felt like a cross between a banker's bolthole and something from a Dr Seuss book.

Google-person Sarah inspected the "device" I'd been asked to bring along (my phone). "You're on iOS7? Great! Can you hook up to the Wi-Fi please and download the Google Search app?" Sarah seized my phone and changed some settings. A Google Now reminder card popped up. "Is it your birthday? Congratulations!"

Blushing slightly, and confused as to why I needed a reminder for my own birthday, I seized a canapé and made my way into The Travel Room. A tiny motorised chairlift whirred in the corner; artificial snow fell on artificial pine trees outside. Thomas and Zoë were dressed for a ski holiday and demonstrated the new Google Voice Search features in the app, swiftly selecting a hotel in Zermatt and then booking a flight. It was all very impressive: the words they spoke appeared on the screens of their tablets (even negotiating Thomas's German accent) and the answer was read out by a pleasant Google voice. Was the flight on time? Yes it was. How long would the transfer be? Two hours, and here was a bus timetable.

Then they pretended they'd arrived on the slopes. Google Maps showed off the best pistes, then Google+ sorted out Zoë's holiday snaps, discarding the ones where people had their eyes closed and even superimposing smiles on a couple who weren't enjoying the glühwein quite enough for her liking. Then she used something called Google Auto Awesome to turn her photos into a mini movie.

Suddenly Thomas was the German-speaking waiter and Zoë the non-linguist asking for the specials. Google Translate did the rest. Zoë took a picture of the pudding menu, swiped it with her finger and Google told her she was ordering chocolate fondue.

As I left, I asked my "device" how long it would take to get back to the office. Twenty-six minutes, apparently, by public transport. Even in this, Google was spot on – which felt slightly occult, given the vagaries of the Tube.

This is amazing stuff, of course, and there are plenty of other ways that technology can help: notifications and reminders, videos and traffic updates. But the best thing about it all? It's that to make all the tech worthwhile, we still have to travel. We still have to get ourselves to interesting places to take those photos, drink that glühwein or eat that chocolate fondue. We have to take a mountain walk or learn to ski. To feel it for ourselves – even if we then promptly share it all in a Google Hangout.

So look up from your device for a moment: nothing beats being there.

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