In a spare, drab office park in Sunnyvale, California, a bunch of two-by-fours and foamboard have been nailed together into a makeshift model of a shipping container. Inside, a bare, unlit Edison bulb hangs from a wire, over some simple IKEA furniture and a table with Lego blocks on it. The blocks are stand-ins for modules that might someday go into the Project Ara phone, which in theory will let users swap in different components on the fly instead of replacing the whole phone when it's time to upgrade.

The model is there because the people behind Project Ara are currently trying to think through potential retail experiences that would help people configure their phones. Not included inside the model are the non-invasive biometric monitoring tablets that measure galvanic skin response as a trigger to present the simplified configurator experience the team is looking into. Such technical jargon is par for the course inside Google's Advanced Technologies and Products (ATAP) group, which is in charge of Project Ara. As near as I can tell (without an engineering degree, at least), the only person in the room who needs such terms explained is me.

At ATAP, simple things like Lego blocks represent ridiculously complex ideas. This tiny group of engineers and designers has given itself the task of creating a phone with several unproven, next-generation technologies. They intend to make a phone cheap enough to be accessible to 5 billion people. To do so, they need to create an ecosystem of hardware manufacturers robust enough that it could literally challenge giant incumbents like Foxconn and even Samsung. The head of Project Ara, Paul Eremenko, says he is planning "the most custom mass-market product ever created by mankind" without a trace of irony in his voice.

He and his team have just one year left to do it.