Google X, a secret science lab

By Brandon Bailey / San Jose Mercury News

Published Mar 13, 2014 at 12:01AM

In 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.

But 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.

At 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.

“They’re 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.”

While 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 Ph.D.s.”

“They 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.”

The 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.

Consider 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 error.

Critics 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.

Driverless 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.)

Other X projects are similarly 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.

Another 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 developing countries.

“It’s 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.