Google[x], the search giant’s secret research and development lab for ideas that ostensibly have nothing to do with search, has been a source of intrigue since its creation in 2010. The outfit has been particularly busy in the last year, having announced a slew of projects that have captured the imagination of the tech community, and not all have emerged from its most secret of development houses.
With Google’s unparalleled resources, and more importantly, a desire to use them to fund projects that appear to be unrelated to its core business, Google[x] has few constraints. However, as Jon Gertner described in a recent Fast Company article, it does have clearly articulated standards. Any project taken on by Google[x] must address a problem that affects millions of people, or more. If it does, then the project must also have at least one component that resembles science fiction, while at the same time utilize technologies that are currently, or in some cases almost, available. The term “moonshot,” used by Googlers to describe Google[x] projects and others similarly ambitious in scope, is clearly appropriate.
The most prominent projects to emerge from Google[x] are the self-driving car and Google Glass. These, however, are not the only “moonshot” ideas to be disclosed to the public by the internet titan. Five of the potentially most world-changing are below.
1. Project Tango
Google announced Thursday that it had developed a prototype for a tablet with 3D mapping and scaling capabilities, powered by Nvidia’s K1 processor. The tablet, which is being developed by Google’s Advanced Technologies and Projects Group (ATAP) as apart of Project Tango, boasts 4GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage, and 4G LTE support.
Project Tango represents Google’s stake in the growing market for 3D, virtual reality, and other advanced platforms. Last November, Apple bought PrimeSense, an Israeli 3D sensor company for $350 million. Facebook purchased Oculus VR, the maker of virtual reality devices designed primarily for gaming, for $2 billion this March. However, it is unclear how Apple or Facebook plan to integrate the technology into their current offerings. For Google, the answer is a little bit more clear.
As Johnny Lee, a member of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group, explains in a promotional video for the initiative: “We are physical beings that live in a 3D world. Yet, mobile devices today assume that the physical world ends at the boundaries of the screen. Our goal is to give mobile devices a human scale understanding of space and motion.”
Project Tango has produced prototypes for a phone and now a tablet. The prototypes feature a 4 megapixel camera, vision processors that perform 2 times better than computers, a motion tracking camera, and integrated depth sensing capabilities. The applications appear to be most profound for people with disabilities, who could use the devices to gain a full picture of their surroundings in an unfamiliar environment. It could be also be used to discover, among other things, the location of certain items in a store, or to recreate what a particular room might look like with new features in it. The tablet, which is now available to developers, is selling for $1,024.
2. Project Loon
Approximately 5 billion people around the world lack access to the Internet, and connecting them to the web is one of the biggest global challenges.
Project Loon sends balloons into the stratosphere, 20 kilometers above the Earth’s surface and twice as high as airplanes and the weather. The balloons, which are completely solar powered, form a network reachable with a special antenna attached to the side of a building. A signal bounces from the antenna, to the balloon network, and then down to the Internet infrastructure on land. If ever built out, the system could connect poor and rural areas to the Internet at a fraction of the cost. The technology was debuted in June 2013, in New Zealand, and is currently being refined through a series of tests in California’s Central Valley.
3. Project Ara
Like Project Tango, Project Ara has been developed by Google’s ATAP as an open hardware platform. Announced in mid-April, the goal of Project Ara is to create a modular smartphone, allowing anyone to assemble a mobile device to their exact specifications. Project Ara is currently soliciting the feedback of users and developers, with a release scheduled for January 2015. The basic model is expected to cost $50.
4. Google Contact Lens
The plans for Google Contact Lens were announced in January earlier this year. The idea is to use the glucose levels in a diabetic’s tears to keep them constantly aware of their sugar levels. To monitor this, sensors are embedded within the two soft layers of lens material that form the contact. If a person’s sugar levels drop below a certain threshold, an LED light within the contact will flash. The company received two patents for components of these biometric lenses in April.
Google[x] acquired Makani, the makers of a wind power device, in May of 2013. Typically one to develop the far-off technology itself, it is Google[x]’s only acquisition to date. The airborne wind turbine (AWT) flies in a vertical loop, harnessing the same energy source as a regular turbine. However, instead of being a standalone structure, it looks more like a kite with a tether connecting it to the ground. The idea promises to generate more energy at a fraction of the cost of other wind power systems.