Google X explained: What's really going on at Google's secret lab?

Google revealed last week that it is working on a smart contact lens that can measure glucose levels in diabetics' tears - but that's just one of the many outlandish projects currently in development at the not-so top secret Google X lab.

The name Google X has popped up a lot in recent years in connection with Google Glass and self-driving cars, but there are plenty of lingering questions about what it is trying to do. If you're confused by Google X then you'll be glad to know Pocket-lint has fully explained everything you may need to know.

We've looked at Google's research lab, and we've broken down what it is, where the facility is, what it is publicly working on, and so much more. Keep in mind that Google X does keep many things under wraps. Still, you could be an expert on all things Google X-related when you've done reading.

READ: Google Smart Contact Lens can measure glucose in tears

What is Google X?

Google X is stylised as Google[x] but often referred to as Google X. It is a facility run by Google, who's existence has been known for a few years, where Googlers brainstorm and hack away at far-out ideas that might never see the light of day beyond a Google-owned building.

Google X has one major goal: to disrupt complacency in technology by conducting mind-blowing research akin to the breakthrough and classic work once spearheaded by companies like AT&T's Bell Labs.

Think "Manhattan Project". In other words, Google X wants to forever change the world just like the Manhattan Project changed the world by creating the first atomic bomb - or at least that's how Bloomberg BusinessWeek described Google's research lab.

Google X is thinking outside the box and into the future; it is attempting to develop products and innovate in a way that hasn't been seen since the last century. The New York Times claimed Google was attempting to tackle a list of 100 "shoot-for-the-stars" ideas. Only a few of these ideas have been revealed, and that's essentially why Google X is considered "secretive".

READ: Google in 2014: Pocket-lint predicts

Where is Google X located?

The Google X research labs are housed in a pair of two-storey, red-brick buildings located about a half-mile from the Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California.

As for what it's like at Google X, while walking around the campus you'd likely see a burbling fountain, company-issued bikes, conference rooms with frosted-glass windows, a self-driving race car, and whiteboards riddled with diagrams of space elevators, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

Space elevators - rocketless elevators that could travel to an anchored space station via a cable tethered to Earth - aren't actually a moonshot idea at Google X, but they are an inside joke, according to the rumour mill media. They are on whiteboards at Google X simply to keep people guessing.

READ: Google's new £1bn UK headquarters approved

What is a moonshot?

In this instance, a moonshot is a crazy idea or an improbable project that has a million-to-one scientific chance of ever being solved or making a difference.

Google specifically described a moonshot as a huge problem that needs a radical solution and breakthrough technology in order to be answered. A moonshot therefore requires lots of funding or capital, even though a solution might never come to fruition.

Apart from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Google X is headed by Eric "Astro" Teller. He is Google X's "Chief of Moonshots" - mostly because of his genius, possibly inherited from his grandfather, Edward Teller, who created the hydrogen bomb.

At a South by Southwest conference in Texas, Teller said moonshots matter because "when you try to do something radically hard, you approach the problem differently than when you try to make something incrementally better".

Teller added: "When you attack a problem as though it were solvable, even though you don't know how to solve it, you will be shocked with what you come up with. It's 100 times more worth it. It's never 100 times harder."

For more information about moonshots, check out the video below by Google:

READ: Google's Andy Rubin now making robots in next 'moonshot’ idea

What are some major Google X projects?

Google has confirmed and heavily publicised the following projects:

Project Glass

Unveiled in 2013, Project Glass is the name of Google X's program that aims to develop augmented reality, head-mounted display glasses called Google Glass.

Google Glass is meant to replace the smartphone experience, allowing users to make calls, take pics, browse the web, and retrieve relevant information without using their hands. It is also meant to kick start ubiquitous computing, so people won't always be chained to a desktop computer.

Pocket-lint has covered the Project Glass program and the Google Glass product extensively, which you can see by browsing our Glass hub . We've also had a brief hands-on with Glass while getting some ice cream in London.

If you'd like to see how Glass is supposed to work, check out Google's teaser video below. It was released in early 2013 when the company first unveiled Project Glass. You can also learn about all the XE updates for Glass via Pocket-lint's round-up.

READ: What can Google Glass do now? A look at all the XE updates

Google Driverless car

Google driverless car is the name of Google X's autonomous driving technology for vehicles. It unveiled in 2011. Sebestian Thrun, the co-inventor of Google Street View, is leading the project.

Although Google X said last summer that it had driven more than 300,000 autonomous-driving miles accident-free, it is still lobbying for legal approval of driverless cars in the US. Manufacturers have been slow to adopt Google X's technology. Some have even begun work on their own self-driving cars, including companies like BMW, Telsa, Volvo and Audio.

Still, Google is determined. According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Brin revealed to Googlers in early 2013 that he wanted to spend more of his time on driverless cars in the future. Brin said Google Glass - a project he championed from the beginning - was "basically done", indicating that driverless cars needed him more in terms of continued work and dedicated attention.

READ: UK puts plan in place for driverless cars

What are some other Google X projects?

Google has confirmed the following projects:

Project Loon

Google X has a unique solution for those in rural areas who struggle to get access to the internet. Called Project Loon, the endeavor uses air balloons to beam 3G internet speeds to remote places.

Specifically, the system uses balloons carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial aircraft, to beam internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today’s 3G networks or faster.

Google said that two-thirds of people in the world did not have access to a fast and reliable internet connection, but Project Loon hopes to change that. So, in June 2013, Google X launched 30 balloons in New Zealand and gave a group of 50 testers the opportunity to use the balloon-based internet access.

For more information, check out the video from Google below.

READ: Google Project Loon brings balloon internet access

Smart Contact Lens

Google's Google X team announced this month that it was developing a smart contact lens for diabetics. This contact lens will measure glucose levels in tears, because it features miniaturised electronics like chips, sensors and a hair-thin antenna.

Google X is working toward embedding tiny LED lights that would light up to notify you of low or high glucose, and it is looking for partners who are "experts" in bringing a product like a smart lens contact to market.

Interestingly, a smart contact lens is not new. Microsoft and the University of Washington actually worked on a similar project in 2011.

READ: Google Smart Contact Lens can measure glucose in tears

Web of Things

Another idea at Google X involves the “Web of things” or "Internet of Things". According to The New York Times, Google, at its software developers’ conference in May 2011, described Web of Things as a way of connecting objects to the internet.

Google is an internet company first, so it would be smart for Google to explore connected home accessories and wearable objects. That said, the company has introduced Google Glass since it talked about Web of Things in 2011.

It's therefore not clear if Google X is still exploring the Web of Things trend outside of Project Glass. However, it's possible some of its "shoot for the stars" ideas might have something to do with Web of Things.

In addition, Google recently acquired smart smoke detector and thermometer company Nest, suggesting it is still interested in connected home accessories.

READ: Internet of Things explained: What is it?

Neural Network

This is probably one of Google X's less attractive projects, because it is so technical.

Announced in 2012, Google X's neural network is basically a technology that uses semi-supervised learning to enable speech recognition and extraction of objects from video. Example applications for the future include improvements to image search, speech recognition, and machine language translation.

The neural network research project was moved from the Google X laboratory and into a division the oversees the company’s search business and related services, according to The New York Times. So, it's no longer a Google X project.

READ: Qualcomm's Zeroth processors can mimic brain-like computing

What are some rumoured Google X projects?

Google has not confirmed the following projects:

Genie

Google X is reportedly working on a new technology for the architecture and construction industries, and it's called Genie.

According to Archdaily, which cited a story from Globes, Genie's development team sent a report to Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Brin that described Genie as a cloud-based collaboration platform. This platform has "planning applications to help architects and engineers in the design process, especially for skyscrapers and large buildings," and it includes "planning tools of expert architects and engineers and advance analytics and simulation tools.”

Genie could save 30-50 per cent in construction costs, as well as 30-50 per cent of the time spent between planning and market, and it could generate $120 billion a year. In fact, the Genie team has already sent a prototype to architects and industry professionals, and it has been well-received. Consequently, it is now being developed - but not under Google X. A spinoff company called Vannevar Technology Inc is allegedly working on Genie.

READ: Google launches Google SketchUp 3D modelling software

Are the Google Barges a part of Google X?

Kind of. In October 2013, three mysterious barges popped up on the shores of San Francisco and Maine. Each had ties to Google, spawning numerous stories about what they are and potentially contain.

SFGate reported in December 2013 that Google's three barges would eventually be docked in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. They are part of a $35 million project called Hangar 3. Each barge is intended to be floating retail store for Google Glass, and they'll feature 80 stacked shipping containers and rows of sails.

Other reports have said the barges will house dazzling showrooms outfitted with chrome features and floor lighting, party decks, and 40 interchangeable shipping containers to create new spaces for Google X events.

READ: Google Barges are $35M floating retail stores

Is Calico a part of Google X?

No. Time Magazine reported that Google's life extension project, called Calico, which unveiled in autumn 2013, is a moonshot - but it is not affiliated with Google X. That means Google's moonshot phrase is not limited to Google X. For instance, Google's robots for businesses idea is also considered a moonshot even though it's not affiliated with Google X.

READ: Google’s latest venture is health-conscious Calico

What is Solve For X?

Described as a "think-tank project", Solve For X receives funding from Google X. Most of the Solve For X team is also based at Google on the Google X team.

Solve For X first launched alongside the Solve For X website at an event in February 2012, with the hopes that collaborators would use it as a forum to solve global issues. Solve For X is also meant to encourage technology-based moonshot thinking and teamwork.

"Our goal is to make Solve For X an active and collaborative website for innovators anywhere," explained Google on the Solve For X website. "We encourage you to become a community member: join and declare your own <X> watch, share and rate moonshots, submit moonshots that should be on this site."

For more information about Solve for X, check out this video from Google.

And that's it. Keep checking back for more. Pocket-lint will continue to update this article as Google unveils more information about Google X and moonshots.



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