7 Special Projects In Google’s Secret Lab

Unlike Apple, Google is happy to let people in on its special projects. Innovative, yes. Value-creating for shareholders, maybe not.

Both Google and Apple are in the enviable position of being able to use a portion of the massive profits generated by their core businesses to fund special projects.

While Apple’s secretive corporate culture keeps it tight-lipped about some of its advanced research projects, Google is quite a bit more open about theirs. The company periodically gives the public a little peek (like it did in a recent big story in BusinessWeek) about projects being developed at its advanced research lab. As a result, rarely is Google questioned about its ability to “innovate” — it’s making cars that drive themselves, for example — even though it’s often unclear when or even if these projects from Google’s “X” lab will actually come to fruition. The company has been successful in getting thousands of individuals to pay $1,500 to test-drive the head-mounted computer that it built in Google X.

Apple, by contrast, in recent years has been dogged by concerns about its ability to innovate. During CEO Tim Cook’s keynote presentation Tuesday night to kick off the D11 conference, one person went so far as to ask why Apple wouldn’t let its shareholders or the public imagine the future. Cook responded by saying that Apple’s customers like being “surprised.”

Whether Google’s periodic special-project sneak peeks give it an innovation halo on Wall Street is open to debate. It’s worth noting, however, that shares of Google are up more than 20% on the year while Apple stock is down more than 15%.

With that in mind, here’s a taste of some of the projects Google is working on in its Google X Lab.

1. Google has cars that can drive themselves.

Eric Risberg, file / AP

One of Google’s earliest Google X projects was computerized cars that are able to drive themselves. It’s not hard to imagine the upside of driverless cars, should they work well: getting rid of parking lots, traffic accidents, and so on and so forth.

2. Google Glass is Google’s first wearable computer.

Eric Risberg / AP

Powered by Android, Google Glass brings a computerized screen right into your field of vision. Imagine a maps app just inside your peripheral vision, or the ability to text someone by just speaking.

3. Google has floating wind-power generators.

Jeff Chiu / AP

According to a story in BusinessWeek, Google CEO Larry Page approved the acquisition of Makani Power, which has wind turbines mounted on fixed-wing aircrafts tethered to the ground like kites.

4. Google has a huge network of computers that can learn by surfing the web.

Google / AP

The network consists of around 16,000 computers that are able to learn by surfing the web. The prototype project? Finding cats on YouTube.

5. Google is researching ways to bring the internet to undeveloped parts of the world.

The Decatur Daily, Gary Cosby Jr. / AP

Part of that involves bringing low-cost smartphones to emerging markets. But Google is also reportedly working on ways to mount broadband transmitters on high-altitude balloons that would bring internet access to parts of the world where the basic infrastructure isn’t available.

6. On deck: something related to blood screening?

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Also from the BusinessWeek report: Andrew Conrad, formerly the chief scientist of LabCorp, the blood-screening firm, joined Google X this spring to work on an undisclosed project.

7. Google has a big annual conference to sniff out even more of these kinds of projects.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Google now has an annual conference called “Solve for X,” where it assembles a big cast of entrepreneurs and researchers to discuss next-generation technology and problems. Some examples discussed: stretchable electronics and bionic eyes.

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