Google finally let the press into its workshop, Google X. The highly secretive innovation lab works on projects you might have heard of if you’re a Buckminster Fuller or Nikola Tesla fanboy -- and sound like science fiction if you are not.
Cars that drive themselves, elevators into space and Internet-enabled clothing (yes, really) are just some of the things Google is hard at work on.
While you may think of Google as employing an army of software engineers, that’s not who’s working at Google X. In fact, the company prefers to staff its lab with robotics engineers. The research project works on two locations: One at the company’s main campus and the other at a top-secret unknown location. While the company spends very little, comparatively speaking on Google X, the potential for return on investment is enormous.
It would also be a mistake to underestimate Google’s cultivation of mystique as part of its overall branding and marketing strategy. Google+ is a prime example of this: The utterly conventional social network (sorry, “identity service”) built huge buzz by only allowing a trickle of traffic through the door at its launch. This not only got people clamoring for an invite. It got everyone left out of the party talking about what was on the inside. Not a whole lot, it turned out, but it didn’t matter. Google got what it wanted in the form of huge Internet buzz and millions of new members.
America has, for the last century or so, been fascinated by futuristic technology. Blogs like Paleofuture and How To Be A Retronaut explore (among other things) the “future of the past,” early American interest in the striking technologies of the future. The obsession has now gone global with the Internet, a place where the latest futuristic tech innovation will rack up more web traffic than the latest news about the Kardashians.
The increased innovation has done little to quench our thirst for thrilling new technologies. If anything, it has made the public more ravenous, desiring space elevators where once a fast blimp did the trick. But why? We currently enjoy electronic wonders and conveniences nearly impossible to imagine even 15 years ago. With the Internet you can now watch any movie or listen to any recording at any time from virtually any place... at least if you aren’t too picky about following IP law.
Furthermore, mobile technology has you carrying the Internet in your pocket wherever you go. Rather than being in awe of these technologies, it is more common to poke fun at people who are. For every meaningful innovation, there are scores of arguably silly ones. “Checking in” to a place via Yelp, Facebook or Foursquare is about as useful as a website with a button you can press for the sake of pressing a button.
While there are tangible advantages for businesses, the only benefits for consumers come in the form of better marketing and the thrill of leaving your stamp on a digital world. Thus, it seems that as a society we are equally impressed by the tangible benefits of innovation (the Internet) and the stand-alone effect of awe for its own sake (Foursquare).
Science fiction is a relatively modern invention, rising with the industrial age and the promise of understanding the world on a scientific, rather than religious basis. What was once little more than man’s attempt to peek a bit over the horizon has now become a sort of de facto research and development for the entire world of tech.
Paul Laffoley, a self-described “visionary artist” from Boston, MA (a man deeply influenced by Buckminster Fuller and his vision of a society producing technology for the greater social benefit) often describes how the Star Trek communicator is now the cell phone. We now live in a time when the gap between science fiction and consumer electronics has become incredibly narrow. We’re either innovating more rapidly or running out imagination. Considering how little imagination is now required, the latter conclusion is not far fetched.