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Impractical? Absurd? Not for Secret Google X Lab
Impractical? Absurd? Not for Secret Google X Lab

By Barry Levine
November 14, 2011 11:44AM

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A key area of exploration at Google X is the so-called "Web of things," where a limitless variety of objects in the home and office are connected to each other and to the Web, assumedly via the Android operating system. These include coffee pots and other household devices that could be controlled remotely.

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Driverless cars, Net-connected refrigerators, and dinner plates that track what you eat. These are some of the out-there projects being researched at Google X, a secret R&D lab at the technology giant.

The lab's existence -- which even many Google employees don't know about -- and some of the projects are outlined in a report in Monday's New York Times. The paper said the lab is working on a hundred "shoot-for-the-stars ideas," citing a dozen unnamed people who work at the lab or have knowledge of it. Researchers at Google X hail from Microsoft, Stanford, M.I.T., Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere.

Space Elevators

The lab's exploration into a seemingly limitless number of industries and would-be industries is typical of Google, which long ago emerged from being a search-engine giant to becoming the organizer of the world's information, and now has moved beyond even that lofty goal.

Space elevators, for instance. The concept, where freight is hauled into orbit by a cable anchored between the earth and a space-based platform, is considered to be one of Google X's projects.

Some of the projects are relatively near-term, while many others appear to have no discernible product target. Driverless cars, which use intelligent driving systems, may be on the near-term track, as Google is reportedly investigating the possibility of manufacturing such vehicles in the U.S., or licensing the technology.

In some cases, of course, a key question is whether the product or research is a solution in search of a problem. In the case of driverless cars, Google has said that the technology could address traffic accidents, many of which are caused by driver error or fatigue.

Wired Coffee Pots

Then there are remotely controlled robots, which might attend conferences in place of its human owner, as such a unit did on behalf of Google co-founder Sergey Brin at a gathering of the Singularity University last year.

A key area of exploration at Google X is the so-called "Web of things," where a limitless variety of objects in the home and office are connected to each other and to the Web, assumedly via the Android operating system. These include coffee pots and other household devices that could be controlled remotely.

Michael Gartenberg, research director at Gartner, noted that Microsoft, among other companies, similarly conducts research that could be considered far afield from its core products -- including health services, wristwatches, children's toys, and concept videos about home energy management.

But, he said, such research can often have unpredictable, but useful, results. "Most of the type of research" that has been reported taking place at Google X, Gartenberg said, "is the type that won't directly yield products, but might yield spinoffs that can be applied to existing products."

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