Makani wing on the ground station perch is ready
for launch, April 26, 2013. The wing launches and
lands by hovering like a helicopter while the
tether is spooled out, and then transitions to
flying large loops that mimic the path of a
conventional turbine for power generation.
a rare public speech, Google Inc. CEO Larry Page once
suggested the tech industry needs "safe places
where we can try out new things" without rules or
interference. Some people thought he was describing a
futuristic fantasy, perhaps a remote desert island where
robots roam free.
Page already has the next best thing in Google X, the
secretive skunk works where company scientists get
plenty of resources and free rein to work on things like
self-driving cars, Internet-connected balloons and
flying power generators.
a time when other tech companies have trimmed research
budgets or focused tightly on their core business,
Google’s X division is pursuing a range of seemingly
outlandish ideas. And while much of it is hush-hush, the
X projects that have been announced publicly may push
the envelope even further than Google’s ventures into
ultrafast fiber networks, industrial robotics and
high-tech home thermostats.
doing a lot of incredibly weird stuff," said Rob
Enderle, analyst at the Enderle Group, "but they’re
rolling in money." Google made $13 billion profit
on $60 billion in sales last year, mostly from online
ads. "That gives them a lot of latitude in what
they invest in."
the X division is housed in two nondescript office
buildings near Google’s main campus, it’s been
compared to "Willy Wonka’s Chocolate
Factory" by the man who runs it on a daily basis.
Eric "Astro" Teller, an entrepreneur and
scientist who reports to Google co-founder Sergey Brin,
once described his staff as "Peter Pans with
understand that their mission is to think really
audaciously, to incubate magic," Teller said in a
speech last year, adding that X’s goal is to
"have an impact on the world and then worry later
about making money on it."
message is classic Page and Brin. Google’s co-founders
built their powerful Internet search engine as grad
students and, as they enter middle age, still espouse a
passion for ideas that sound like science fiction.
the driverless cars, often seen near Google’s
headquarters or zipping up and down Highway 101. Brin
and Page have said they’re convinced that cutting-edge
sensors and navigational software can eliminate
thousands of traffic accidents now caused by human
question how that relates to Google’s core business,
although some analysts believe Google might sell more
ads if people spend more time checking email and surfing
online in their cars.
describes the mandate for X this way: Identify some
really big problems that Google might be able to solve
by applying technology in a radically new way.
this open question of what Google is going to be, a
decade or more from now," Teller said in an
interview. "Google X isn’t the only answer to
that question, but it was built as a place to do some of
the exploration to find some great new problems for
Google to tackle."
head of X, Teller is known as Google’s "captain
of moonshots" — a reference to Page’s penchant
for ambitious projects that promise big impact. Teller,
a grandson of pioneering physicist Edward Teller, got
the nickname "Astro" from high school friends
who thought his spiky haircut looked like artificial
cars were the first big project at X: Page and Brin
created the division in 2010 as a lab for computer
scientist Sebastian Thrun after meeting him at a
Pentagon-sponsored robotic vehicle contest. (The unit’s
official name is (x), with brackets, because it was
originally a placeholder to be filled in later.) Thrun
left in 2012 for an online teaching startup, but Page
and Brin decided X should explore other ideas that
caught their interest, like wearable computers.
recruited an electrical engineering professor, Babak
Parviz, who had published research on using lenses to
display images. Soon they brought on more engineers,
software developers and stylish designers to refine what
came to be called Glass.
some external skepticism, Juniper Research estimates
sales of "wearables" could reach $19 billion
in 2019. Teller said the project’s biggest challenge
is grappling with "what it feels like to be human
and what it feels like to interact with
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X projects seem less philosophical, but no less
ambitious. There’s the airborne Makani wind turbine
— actually, a pair of turbines mounted on a 28-foot
wing designed to fly in circles at 1,300 feet, so it can
generate electricity and send it by cable to the ground.
aerial endeavor is Project Loon, which is exploring
whether a network of low-cost, high-altitude balloons
carrying radio gear can deliver Internet service to
exciting. We have the license to go and try stuff that
really might not work, but if it does, it can change the
world in big ways," Richard DeVaul, the project’s
chief technical architect, told the San Jose Mercury
News last year.
announced last month that another X team has produced a
prototype contact lens embedded with a tiny chip to
monitor glucose in human tears, so diabetics don’t
have to prick their fingers several times a day.
division is working on more "moonshot" ideas
but they’re not ready to be disclosed, Teller said. He
declined to reveal X’s budget or the size of its
staff. Google spent $8 billion, 13.3 percent of its
revenue, on research and development companywide last
said X projects are evaluated on their potential for big
impact, rather than immediate profit. But there may be
other dividends, said Paul Saffo, a veteran tech
forecaster and Silicon Valley observer.
image gets a boost when people see the company working
on high-tech solutions to human problems, Saffo said.
And projects like self-driving cars can provide new data
about users and their surroundings, which may benefit
Google’s information-driven business.
said two other projects have "graduated" from
X after producing new technology for indoor mapping and
computerized image-recognition, which were handed off to
Google’s maps and search divisions.
downside? Google risks losing focus by pushing in too
many directions, warned Pivotal Research analyst Brian
Wieser. With most of the X projects, "I’ve not
heard any compelling argument as to what these have in
investors aren’t worrying, as long as Google keeps
churning out profit. Analyst Colin Gillis of BGC
Partners said Google just needs one or two
"hits" for its "moonshot" strategy
to pay off. And as the Internet industry evolves, he
said, "They’re going to need new sources of
hasn’t produced a clear financial hit yet, Gillis
said. But that hasn’t fazed Page and Brin. "They’re
going to do these projects," Gillis said.
"That’s one thing they have made pretty