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.
- Google entered the TV streaming market in 2012 with the Nexus Q, but the spherical device failed to win the hearts and living rooms of America. The high price of the US-made device also contributed to its downfall, and it was dropped from Google's product list in October 2012. For anybody that isn't a hacker, the device became little more than a doorstop in May 2013, when a Google Play Music update broke compatibility between Android devices and the Nexus Q.
- Google's superfast fiber broadband is still only available in a handful of regions across the United States. People who are able to opt-in to Google's top-end internet and TV package are sent four devices. They're not particularly beautiful creations, but their release in 2012 showed Google's intention to step into a market dominated by cable providers, as well as marking the advent of stupidly fast 1 gigabit home internet connections in the US.
- The Trekker backpack weighs 30 pounds and has 15 5-megapixel cameras mounted on its bulbous head. It's a similar device to the cameras used by Google's fleet of Street View cars, but it's designed for use in the world's most remote areas. Google started offering loans of the Trekker to third-party organizations such as research groups, universities, and tourism boards last year, and it has already allowed adventurers to provide a backpack's eye view of places as diverse as the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon, and Mount Everest.
- Motorola built the Moto X while a subsidiary of Google. A solid but unspectacular device at launch, the Android-based Moto X had good battery life and a wealth of customizable features that, coupled with multiple price drops, turned it into one of the best Android smartphones on the market. But the Moto X's launch wasn't enough to convince Google of Motorola's value. Six months after the phone's launch, Motorola had been sold to Chinese PC giant Lenovo, with Google pocketing $2.91 billion in cash and stock.
- Google's Chromecast streaming device is simple in design, resembling nothing so much as a USB memory stick. The wired HDMI dongle, the company's spiritual successor to its ill-fated Nexus Q, is designed to compete with Apple's AirPlay service. Chromecast — which only recently went on sale outside the US — has dedicated support for viewing browser-based services such as Netflix and YouTube on connected TVs, but it also performs acceptably when faced with regular Flash video.
- The reaction to Glass on sale in beta form been mixed. Some have met the device with passionate interest, questioning its possibilities for an easier, augmented future; others have approached it with violence, assaulting users for wearing the device in public. Glass has already given us a window into the world of professional athletes and reportedly saved lives, but even Google don't always seem sure what the future of its wearable is — the company recently banned developers from using face recognition in their Glassware apps. (Coptrax)
- In 2010, when Eric Schmidt detailed Google's upcoming operating system, he suggested users would not need impressive hardware. It took three years for Google to buck its own guidelines. The $1,299 Chromebook Pixel launched in 2013, boasting an incredible screen and best-in-class design. But the Pixel was too expensive and had poor battery life, limiting its popularity in the market.
- Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects group had been working on a concept for a modular smartphone called Project Ara when Google jettisoned its parent company. Wisely, Google kept the ATAP group on, continuing to support their work on phones built from user-selected parts and stuck together with electropermanent magnets. Project Ara phones could go on sale as early as next year, for as little as $50.
- Project Tango comes from the same ex-Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects group as Project Ara, but where Project Ara is looking to redesign our devices' hardware, Project Tango is aiming to redefine how they use it by building smartphones capable of using cameras and sensors to read the world around them. Google gave away hundreds of smartphone prototypes to developers in February, and reportedly plans to do the same with 200 tablet-sized Tango devices in June
- Google bought robotics firm Boston Dynamics late last year. The acquisition gave Google immediate access to a range of robots, including the Cheetah, which can run on mechanical legs at 29 miles-per-hour, and the BigDog, a quadrupedal bot that can navigate icy terrain. The LS3, pictured above, is designed to carry supplies for soldiers on missions, but some of Boston Dynamics' other machines are a little more esoteric in their design and function. The frankly creepy PETMAN robot can strut, squat, and raise its arms in celebration like a human.
- Although not designed by Google, the Nest Labs thermostat came under the company's wing when Google purchased Tony Fadell's startup this year for $3.2 billion. It's not yet clear is what the high-tech home solutions provider will offer next, but recent report say the company is planning to purchase home surveillance startup Dropcam.
- This "smart contact lens" is one of eight projects Sergey Brin's Google X research group is currently working on. The lens is meant to help diabetes patients track their glucose levels in a less painful way than jabbing their finger every time they need to check their blood sugar. Google says it wants the sensor to be able to generate a glucose reading every second, and report when levels are dropping below a threshold using an LED in the corner of the lens
- The Makani airborne wind turbine looks more like a propeller plane than a traditional turbine. Normal wind turbines need large bases to anchor them to the ground in heavy gusts; the Makani turbine is the size and shape of a glider, and is tethered to a small structure. The turbine takes to the skies, flying in vertical loops and using the wind rushing across its wing-mounted blades to generate power it sends back to the ground. Google purchased the company in May 2013 and presumably will continue to produce them.
- Project Loon is Google's attempt to bring internet to remote and impoverished areas around the world — by balloon. The ambitious Google X project intends to use high-altitude balloons to beam down internet, using wind currents at different levels of the atmosphere to space out the "flock" of floating Wi-Fi providers. Bill Gates questioned the usefulness of the project last year, but Loon perhaps shows best how far Google has come from its early days as a simple search engine.
- Google co-founder Sergey Brin announced his company's prototype self-driving car at the Code Conference yesterday. Unlike most other self-driving car designs, Google's comes without a steering wheel or pedals, forcing passengers to leave the navigation to an artificial intelligence. Brin said the car has yet to crash in all of the company's tests.