Katherine Boehret

Oh, the Places Your Phone Will Find

Before traveling to a new city, it never hurts to reach out to locals you know who can offer suggestions of favorite restaurants and attractions that are off the beaten path.

For the past three months, I’ve been using an app that does this for you: Field Trip. It’s made by a division of Google and is designed to send you, by way of pop-up cards, short blurbs about unique, sometimes-hidden locations as you pass them. You can set Field Trip to show frequent or occasional notifications, and you can turn on an audio option that will speak the title and description of a spot. Restaurant reviews and coupons for discounts show up as you pass by, but the most interesting are the historical cards.

This week, Field Trip got a revamp to include a better interface, content from more publishers (170 sources up from 70) and a smarter system that limits notifications to the ones it thinks you’ll like. I tested Field Trip primarily on an Android phone as well as on an iPhone, and even tried it on Google Glass, the futuristic device you wear to get visual and audio data without holding up a smartphone.

Field Trip had a field day with my city of Washington, D.C., which is bursting with historic spots. I learned the romantic back story of an unusual style of architecture in my neighborhood, discovered an exclusive speakeasy no one can visit without a text-message invitation and learned of a church’s interesting history. These cards came from sources including Arcadia Publishing, the DC Style Is Real website and the Historical Marker Database.

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Field Trip displays cards about nearby locales.

I like to consider myself a plugged-in member of my neighborhood, so I was skeptical of what Field Trip could teach me about it. I was pleasantly surprised. I learned that a block where I’ve walked every day for the past 11 years is called Philadelphia Row.

According to a Field Trip card, the block got its name because the developer had Philadelphia-style houses built on it for his Philadelphia-native wife, who was homesick. He took her to Europe during construction, brought her back at night, and when she woke the next day she saw architecture that felt like home.

I tapped a flag icon to save this tidbit in my Favorite list, then hit another icon to share it with neighborhood friends.

I found out about Harold Black, a bar in an unlabeled location that I had previously wondered about when I saw people entering and exiting. Field Trip popped up a card about it as I drove home in a cab one night.

When I visited Frederick, Md., a card popped up with historic details about Robert E. Lee’s Antietam Campaign as I drove along the road where soldiers marched 150 years ago. Another card from Zagat appeared in my notifications as I passed by Volt restaurant, calling it an “evening in foodie heaven” and showing me the average cost and rankings for food, décor and service.

In downtown D.C., I donned Google Glass while I was near Asbury United Methodist Church and saw cards in front of my eyes that explained the church’s history: Its members include descendants of D.C. slaves who tried to escape to freedom in 1848 on the ship called Pearl.

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A map in the app shows locations with cards.

Though the new version of the app added more cards for less popular areas, chances are you won’t see as many notifications there. If it doesn’t find spots near you, its definition of “nearby” broadens to include more cards.

Still, Field Trip isn’t perfect. One card displayed a photo of something that used to be near me called the Visitation School, saying it was torn down around 1910. Today, this is the location of the Mayflower Hotel, yet this two-sentence card didn’t give me any clue as to what the Visitation School was or why it was significant.

Another card from Thrillist was an obvious mistake: It described an athletic spray that mentioned “D.C.” in its description. Upon studying this card further, the address it mentioned was for a men’s salon called the Grooming Lounge, but that didn’t explain why this card highlighted a product from the salon.

If a card is inaccurate or unhelpful, users can tap an icon to report it to Google, marking it with labels that say the card isn’t interesting, has unrelated images, is at the wrong location or has other issues. You can opt to show less or more from a certain source. In the case of the athletic-spray card, I adjusted my settings to show fewer cards from Thrillist.

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Users can adjust which sources they see more or less of.

Field Trip depends on location data from Google Maps and a map icon in the bottom bar of the app displays a map of your location and cards around you. A mini map in the top right corner of a card shows you where an identified spot is located.

Though the Field Trip app works in the background on Android and Apple’s iOS operating systems, it will affect your battery. But I found with the Occasional notification setting turned on, there were fewer notifications so this wasn’t an issue. It helped that when my phone’s battery level dropped to 30 percent, Field Trip went into snooze mode. You can turn notifications off altogether and only open the app when you want.

But what is Google doing with all of the data it collects on you as you use Field Trip? John Hanke, vice president of Niantic Labs, the division of Google that created Field Trip, said the app doesn’t record a user’s location; rather, it only stores the past stories it has surfaced for the user so it knows not to display the same stories over and over again. As with any GPS-enabled app, users must turn on location permissions.

Stories from the past are all around us, if we take the time to learn. By dispensing that information in bite-size chunks, Field Trip makes that learning a little easier. Just don’t be disappointed when you don’t find in-depth details about these locales.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com.


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