Google Launches Voice Search – and Two Other Brand New Features (video)

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Want to surprise the mother-in-law but don't know how to spell "Bolognese sauce?" It's okay, just sound it out.

“Most awesomest Google search feature ever.”

If your vocalized search gets you the resulting links, it means you already have the answer. But chances are you don’t as it was only this past Tuesday that Google announced their voice-recognition technology for desktops. Add to that the two other snazzy features Google’s integrating into its search engine and you’ve got a three-pronged approach to bolstering what’s already the world’s most popular internet search tool.

The first of the features will enable users to search the web simply by speaking their requests. Called Voice Search, the speech-to-text application will be activated by clicking on a microphone icon located next to Google’s query box. Voice Search has already gone mobile as an App for Android phones, but Google wants to enable its users to search via speech recognition on their laptops and desktops as well. In addition to the convenience of not having to type, Voice Search will be a helping hand in those hard-to-spell searches. It’ll also be easier to, as Google puts it, enter “long queries, even really, really long queries, just by talking.” Initially, Voice Search will only be available on Chrome browsers, but they plan to make it compatible with other browsers in the future.

Not only is Voice Search already being used on Android phones to search, it’s also enabling voice command control of applications. In the time since Android adopted the App in 2009 Google has built a voice-activated search database of more than 230 billion words spoken by users. The database was used to hone Voice Search’s speech-recognition capabilities. Not only does the program learn how people pronounce words but it also learned what phrases people commonly used in their queries. For now Voice Search only understands English, but Google plans to eventually add more languages.

The video below includes a short demonstration.  If you don’t have Chrome, download it today and wait for the little microphone icon to appear next to the search window–you’ll need a mic too, of course.  But if fellow Hub writer Aaron’s experience with Google Translate is any indication, we may find ourselves wanting to kill the guy in the next cubicle over who keeps yelling at his computer, “Cirque Du Soleil tickets…Du Soleil…DU-SO-LEIL!”

Assuming it works the way it’s supposed to, Voice Search will certainly make our searching that much easier. But Google knows that a picture is worth a thousand words, which is why they’ve also launched a feature called Search by Image. The desktop version of Google Goggles that have been on mobile devices since 2009, Search by Image allows you to query with digital pictures. If you haven’t seen it already, check it out by going to images.google.com and clicking on the camera icon next to the search box. You can drag and drop, upload an image from your drive, or cut and paste an image’s URL. It’s a great idea and, hey, for completeness Google should be able to search images, right? I tried it out with a few images. It was pretty much as if I’d typed in “komodo dragon,” except many of the resulting links contained the image I’d used. The results are actually broken up into “Pages that include matching images” and “Visually similar images.” Google encourages users to plug in vacation photos and see if Search by Image can recognize where you’ve been. Pretty awesomely, when I tried it, Google nailed Paris’s Gare de Lyon, even though mine wasn’t a particularly good photo. It got the Eiffel Tower too, but that seems easy to me. However it mistook the Greek island of Santorini for jets of all things–maybe too much silhouette. And apparently I don’t have a single distinguishing feature on my face. A picture of me returned pretty much any and all men, women, and children of all shapes and sizes with pictures on the internet. Actually, the image-recognition technology can recognize faces, but for privacy purposes Google has thus far decided to disable that capability.

With Voice Search and Search by Image, Google has made the user search more versatile and, potentially, more convenient. To compliment these improvements, the last goodie in their bag of tricks improves the way Google returns their results. You think Google’s fast now? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The search giant’s new Instant Pages will bring you results–much of the time–instantaneously. As you type, the Instant Pages feature predicts what sites you’re most likely to be looking for and begins loading the web pages before you’ve even clicked on the link. If it’s right, the page essentially loads instantaneously, saving users two to five seconds per link clicked, according to Google. Check out the side-by-side speed test in this video.

The technology that gives Instant Pages its speed is called prerendering. Whatever web page it thinks you want, “the browser fetches all of the sub-resources and does all of the work necessary to display the page.” Often, the user won’t even notice a loading time. The prerendering technology is not Google’s alone, it’s available for use on other sites. But Google’s unique capability to predict what site the user is searching for means Instant Pages won’t spend its time queueing up the wrong pages which could lead to slower loading times for the link the user does actually click. Google is offering third party services to sites that use or might want to adopt prerendering. There’s a sample page on the Chromium blog where interested parties can test drive Google-powered prerendering for their own pages. Chrome even has a new experimental page visibility API that developers can access to determine the “visibility status of their page: whether it’s in a foreground tab, a background tab, or being prerendered.”

For most of us, three to five seconds per click isn’t going to make much of difference in our daily schedules. The main goal behind Instant Pages is not to increase user efficiency but to make web searching a more rewarding overall experience. Making the search experience more enjoyable is consistent with Google’s mission of “Knocking down barriers to knowledge.” Frustration is distracting. Faster searching makes for a happier–and more focused–user.

But I wonder how long it’ll take for the novelty of speaking our searches, or searching images, or retrieving pages in the blink of an eye will last. Pretty soon we’ll be yawning and asking, “What else ya got?”

Whatever it is, my bet is that Google’s already working on it.

In case you haven’t seen enough footage of Google’s new features, the following is a video of Tuesday’s media event in which they were unveiled.

[image credit: Google]

image: Voice Search
video1: Voice Search
video2: Search by Image
video3: Instant Pages
video4: Inside Search

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