Taking Google's Field Trip app for a spin: Watch out for the potholes

With a new Android app called Field Trip, Google wants to be your tour guide for all things local.

The app runs in the background on Android devices (an iOS version is coming soon) and suggests things to see and do based on your location. Field Trip draws on sources such as Thrillist, Zagat, Yesterland and Curbed, covering categories such as architecture, lifestyle, food and drink and special offers.

To see how this works in the real world, I took Field Trip for a spin around Cincinnati, where I live. It's a vintage Google product--that is, it's pretty rough around the edges, but has lots of potential for greatness.

On startup, Field Trip asks whether you'd like to be notified about points of interest frequently, occasionally or not at all. By default, the app sounds an alert and opens an information card when it finds something. You can also have the app read information back to you when your phone is connected to Bluetooth speakers, or when it detects that you're driving.

This brings up the first issue I had with Field Trip: Although it's supposed to find points of interest automatically in the background, I often saw no results until I opened the app. I suspect that the app is better at detecting things when you're staying put in one location instead of driving around, but there's no feedback from the app to clarify this.

In my experience, most information came from Zagat for restaurant reviews and Arcadia Publishing for historical details. The latter was particularly interesting, as it showed old photos and brief descriptions that gave a glimpse of Cincinnati history.

Zagat's information was a little more puzzling, mainly because I couldn't figure out how it arrived at its suggestions. While driving through one busy neighborhood, Zagat suggested a popular local pizza chain and a trendy upscale Italian restaurant, but as I moved up the road, it completely missed an ice cream parlor that's a local institution, along with scads of other good restaurants and bars.

For that matter, some areas just didn't trigger anything from Field Trip, despite a high density of bars, shops and restaurants. In the end, I didn't feel like I could rely on the app as a guide to any given area, because it missed too much.

The app itself has a clean interface, with sections for nearby points of interest, recent finds and a map of your surroundings. But on my Galaxy S II, the app froze and force-closed regularly, especially when I tried to play with the map. I also wish the app allowed you to jump to a Web browser for more information, such as a full list of user reviews for restaurants.

As it stands, I won't be using Field Trip on a regular basis. Its recommendations, at least where I live, are too unreliable, and the app itself is buggy on my Galaxy S II. But I do hope Google keeps working on it, learns from it, and perhaps folds the best elements into Google Now, which already provides some basic local suggestions but could use even more. With time, Field Trip could be a powerful tool in Google's search arsenal.

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