I recently attended Google I/O in San Francisco. This is Google’s main event where they often put on display all the newest software and hardware developments. This year there were no new Nexus or Google branded devices announced. Not that we lack for new hardware since Google’s partners have been busy with Samsung’s S6/S6 Edge, the new LG G4, Asus’s new Zenphones and many other new devices. Google did have many exciting new developments, so let’s dive into what was there.
Now, if you care about Google or technology at all, then you’ve learned all about Android M, Cardboard, Project Brillo and more. I’m not here to talk about those, because you’ll have read more about these in many other venues already. I want to talk about the one thing I learned at Google I/O that almost no one is talking about anywhere else. It’s what Google is really up to and what really drives the passions of the people who work there.
Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. You can read it right here on their about page. http://www.google.com/about/
Everyone keeps thinking Google is like Samsung, Apple, Sony or Microsoft,but they’re not. They’re not defined by the newest Nexus phone or tablet. You can’t pigeon-hole them as a consumer electronics company – because that’s all a side effect of their real mission. They’re not just trying to one-up other electronics giants, and in fact are partnered with most of them using Android, Chrome and Google Services.
If you read interviews with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, they discuss this mission. They discuss their ‘moonshot’ projects at Google X Labs, the famous ‘20%’ personal project work time that is available to anyone at Google. Google Cardboard, in point of fact, came from just one such 20% project.
The Wonderful Thing I learned at Google I/O is another side effect of Google’s mission. They might just make the world a vastly better place to live in for people everywhere around the world. In fact, many people at Google are specifically working on projects to do this.
The thing to realize about these projects is that few of them have little immediate financial gain, while carrying significant costs.
Expeditions is a revolutionary tool for deep learning via cheap phones w/Google Cardboard and a tablet. A teacher can guide students through virtual field trips to museums, remote destinations, and more all by using a simple interface on a tablet that guides the software on the phones. Cardboard and cheap headphones make it all immersive in a 3D virtual, or photographic, environment. We’re talking about an investment of perhaps hundreds of dollars per classroom. (or more depending on what phones and tablet the school wants to use). But on Google’s side, this likely costs them millions of dollars, and I’m not sure I’m underestimating that amount. You see, Google has to provide the servers to at least pre-process complex 360 degree footage, store and stream the footage. We’re so used to Google products like Youtube costing us nothing that we don’t realize just how enormous these things are.
Project Loon – the information on this has been around for some time now, but we saw during the keynote that Google has kept at it. This project is all about bringing the internet to people in remote, or difficult to serve, locations. It works by hoisting cellular internet radios, via balloon, into the stratosphere. This means that in the US people on remote farms on in mountain communities can have wireless internet. Two thirds of the world, mostly in emerging nations, don’t even have the option of dial up internet because they don’t have basic phone service. Project Loon can bring the internet and phone service to these people. This isn’t just some ‘pie in the sky’ (nearly punned there) idea – as we’ve seen through online services like Elance/UpWork and Fiverr.com. An internet connection can link someone with a service, to someone looking to pay for that service. We’re used to seeing mega-corporations flying in low-cost workers on visas to replace local workers, or outsourcing entire production lines to countries with lower labor costs. These internet services mean that individuals have been able to form international partnerships with skilled people on a one-to-one basis. https://www.google.com/loon/
Thanks to AI, Robotics and 3D Printing – we will see manufacturing returning as a local business. Some time ago Google acquired SCHAFT and a handful of other robotics companies who are leading the way in real-world functionality. Google regularly partners with 3D printing pioneers and uses 3D printing in many projects itself. It’s inevitable because for many products, shipping is such a major cost, that it’s always been cheaper to build things nearby. When robotics and 3D printing lower manufacturing costs – it may no longer make as much sense to ship products overseas, often two ways, as part of the manufacturing process. Google currently is working not only in robotics manufacturing, but medicine/surgery and many other areas.
Evidence of Google’s interest in healthcare was on display at Google I/O. VA-ST, a Google Impact Challenge UK winner from 2014, were showing their SmartSpecs – glasses that give people who are legally blind or partially sighted a way to see by enhancing the appearance of people and objects to impart a better sense of where their edges are and their distance from the wearer. http://www.va-st.com/
Another group in this section of the show, exiii, were demonstrating 3D printed hands called the handiii. The degree of customization was fascinating and they have three models – including one that is open source (Hackberry). Their goals are to not only move prosthetic hands from being a sterile medical device, but something stylish and personal. Their designs were modern, hi-tech, and often artistic. I happened to visit them as they were comparing their product to a commercial medical hand that a Google I/O attendee used. His enthusiasm for their 3d printed product was was similar to watching one of my writers geek out over the newest Samsung S6 Edge phone. http://exiii.jp/eng.html
The Liftware Spoon, whose technology was purchased by Google, was demoed as well and I can tell you from my personal experience that it is astonishing. I don’t personally have any medicial condition that would cause my hand to shake, but I emulated this as best I could by shaking my hand in all directions to simulate strong tremors. They had a bowl of dried beans. Without the Liftware the beans went everywhere and none stayed in the spoon. With Liftware all but one bean stayed. It was very impressive. From a purely personal viewpoint, I wondered if this technology could be adapted to some sort of camera holder to steady video shots. http://www.liftware.com/
I talked many Googlers while at the event. This passion to do good in the world was universal in everyone I spoke with – from Ellie Powers, Google Play’s Product Manager, to Wilson White a Senior Counsel for Public Policy at Google, as well as uncounted scores of project managers and software engineers (who lacked business cards to help me remember their names. Sorry!!) Everyone talked about areas of Google that drive their passion. Everyone was talking about something that benefited the world and, unless they were demoing a product, none of them tried to relate it to something Google could sell you.
In researching this article it became even more evident just how many diverse areas Google invests and partners in that are all projects to benefit people wholesale and individually.
We’ve been in a time in our country where we were very cynical about altruistic efforts. Especially those coming from the corporate world. Doing something good is still often seen as merely marketing. Apple’s Tim Cook, commenting on the new Google Photos (a scary-smart product that will utterly simplify your photo albums forever) said without a trace of irony, “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be…” The irony here is that Apple already is that kind of company. Apple monitors everything their users do within their ecosystem – including their advertising network – the only difference is they give nothing in exchange for it without charging for it. To be fair, all companies with large customer bases do exactly the same thing. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN are particularly visible participants in data-mining their customers in exchange for a largely free product. However, if you think Macys, JC Pennys, or even large non-profits don’t data mine their customers – you’d be wrong.
Google doesn’t have to worry about the short term. Their business, originally based on selling text ads to people searching the internet, makes them so much revenue that these side projects, investments and partnerships are the corporate equivalent of pocket change. But it’s a basic investment in R&D so vast and so wide that it’s hard to think of another company that ever indulged so deeply in things with such widely positive impacts.
In the long term, which is where Google is looking, they’re going to make more and better consumers out of the world. They may not really think of it that way, but that will happen regardless. And typically Google, it’s not only going to benefit them and their partners, it will even benefit their competitors.
For more information here are some Google search results to keep you informed.