Google began the 21st century as a small but growing search engine. 14 years later, the California-based company has built smartphones, mapped the globe, purchased a firm that makes advanced smoke detectors, and obtained a veritable army of robots. It's sometimes tempting to still think of Google as a search engine, but the strides the company has made into a huge range of hardware markets show that Google's search history won't define its future.

At yesterday's Code Conference, co-founder Sergey Brin showed off Google's prototype self-driving car. The vehicle has no steering wheel and no pedals, but perhaps the strangest thing about the announcement was that it was no surprise. Google is one of most influential companies in the world, and one of the few things you can predict about its future is that its projects will only get wilder. At the moment, we know those projects include a contact lens that can help with your diabetes, a wind turbine that flies like a propeller plane and transfers power back to Earth, and — perhaps most ambitious of all — a secretive campaign costing hundreds of millions of dollars to halt the ravages of human aging.

Not all of Google's hardware creations have been successful. Devices such as the Nexus Q that surely have seemed like good ideas on paper folded under consumer interest. Google's labs, too, must be filled with discarded and half-finished projects and prototypes that the public will never see. But thanks to its prodigious rate of research, development, and acquisition, the company behind the world's most popular search engine has long produced things more tangible than responses to your idle internet queries.