Contextual information provided by mobile devices—via GPS chips and other sensors—can provide clues about a person and his situation, allowing Google to guess what that person wants. “We’ve often said the perfect search engine will provide you with exactly what you need to know at exactly the right moment, potentially without you having to ask for it,” says Wiley.
Google is already taking the first steps in this direction. Google Now offers unsolicited directions, weather forecasts, flight updates, and other information when it thinks you need them (see “Google’s Answer to Siri Thinks Ahead”). Google Glass—eyeglass frames with an integrated display (see “You Will Want Google’s Goggles”)—could also provide an opportunity to preëmptively answer questions or provide useful information. “It’s the pinnacle of this hands-free experience, an entirely new class of device,” Wiley says of Google Glass, and he expects his research to help shape this experience.
Google may be heading toward a new kind of search, one that is very different from the service it started with, says Jonas Michel, a researcher working on similar ideas at the University of Texas at Austin. “In the future you might want to search very new information from the physical environment,” Michel says. “Your information needs are very localized to that place and event and moment.”
Finding the data needed to answer future queries will involve more than just crawling the Web. Google Now already combines location data with real-time feeds, for example, from U.S. public transit authorities, allowing a user to walk up to a bus stop and pull out his phone to find arrival times already provided.