During a speech, Google CEO Larry Page told the audience that what the tech industry needs is a safe place to experiment without restrictions or outside interference and it seems that is what the company has created with its secretive Google X division. Google X, or officially Google [x] with the x originally meant to be filled in later, is the company’s “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory” for techies, where Google scientists have the resources and encouragement to develop science fiction-like projects such as self-driving cars, which have already hit the California roads, flying power generators, or Internet balloons.
While other companies in the tech industry have cut back their research budgets to focus on their core business, Google’s profits allow X employees to push the boundaries and pursue imaginative new ideas. The public only knows about a handful of the projects like the self-driving car due to the secretive nature of the program, but Google X is reportedly working on a 100 shoot-for-the-stars ideas in what is called the “moonshot factory.”
It truly is the atmosphere described by Page. The division is located off of the Google main campus in two non-descript office buildings and according to Eric “Astro” Teller, who serves as the “Willy Wonka” to Google X, as long as employees generate and pursue audacious ideas, they are rewarded even if they fail. The philosophy of the division was best summed up when Teller said that the goal is to identify big problems and think of a solution that will have an impact. The X stands for 10, meaning make a problem 10 times better in a timeframe of 10 years, then worry about how to make money off of it later.
Investors may take issue with this philosophy, but they remain happy as long as Google keeps churning out profits. But Google X is not gambling with the shareholders’ money. Although it is unknown what the budget is specifically for Google X, the company spent $8 billion, or 13.3 percent of its revenue, on research and development last year.
The investment in new projects may soon pay off. Google X recruited Babak Parviz, an electrical engineering professor who published research on using lenses to display images. After bringing in additional engineers, designers, and software developers, the result was Google Glass. A mobile research specialist, Juniper Research, estimates that wearable tech revenue could hit $19 billion as early as 2018.
Other projects include an airborne wind turbine that flies in circles at 1,300 feet and generates electricity that is transferred by cable to the ground. Google X is also working on a network of high altitude balloons that carry radio gear that could provide Internet to developing areas. And last month Google X announced that they have developed a prototype for a contact lens embedded with the technology to test the glucose in tears, so that diabetics will no longer have to prick their fingers throughout the day.
Whether it is referred to as “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory” for techies or a division of “Peter Pans with Ph.D.s,” Google X is not a fantasy but an integral part of the company. “It’s exciting,” said Richard DeVaul, Google X’s chief technical architect. “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.”
By David Tulis