Google Labs: Getting Technophobes Excited About the Web

With an overwhelming amount of technology inundating the marketplace, it is time for all us quivering technophobes, hiding behind our typewriters and cassette decks, to come out and play… on the web. As someone with a strong distaste for “cruising the internet”, the realization that Google provides forums for research, innovation, and experimentation came as a pleasant surprise. That discovery coupled with the realization that the corporation has collaborated with science museums, musicians, and galleries to run their experiments was almost too much for a recent convert to handle. This relates to publishing in that as an industry adapting to new technologies, the use of Open Source Software and experimentation could make the task of implementing these technologies far less daunting and even, potentially, fun.

To an outsider looking in on the industry, publishers often appear to show little initiative in exploring and implementing new technologies. This seeming disinterest or apprehension may simply be a lack of information about the capabilities of software readily available to them. One of such that could prove particularly helpful to the industry is Open Source Software (OSS). OSS is often developed collaboratively and is software containing public source code with licensing that allows anyone to study, change, and distribute it. (The Open Source Definition) The use of such has been implemented by Open Source Publishing – Graphic Design Caravan, a design collective in Brussels, where jobs are spearheaded by a group of their employees, but made available to the public, which allows designers from around the world to offer input and help shape the collective’s work. (About) This cultivates a larger community, while also promoting the collective to a wider audience. This software has further been used extensively as part of several innovative Google programs including the Google Labs, Google Chrome Experiments, and the Chrome Web Lab. Though publishers do not have the same resources as tech companies, those who explore and innovative with what they have available, stand to gain a potentially wider and more involved customer base.

The Google Labs were formed as a means of testing experimental ideas from Google employees while inviting audience input. The program originated in May 2002 and was then updated and re-launched in April 2009. Google described the labs as “a playground where our more adventurous users can play around with prototypes of some of our wild and crazy ideas and offer feedback directly to the engineers who developed them.” (Ehrlich) Some products of this initiative include the following:

  • GOOGLE FAST FLIP: This program offers an array of recent, popular, and controversial articles from major news sites. With a click or swipe a new set is made available to the viewer, making articles faster to find.
  • GOOGLE GOGGLES: Using Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Google Goggles allow the viewer to take of photo of text and convert it into language that is recognizable by word processing software. It is especially helpful for tourists who can use the tool to convert foreign languages from signs and menus into a recognizable form.
  • GOOGLE SHOPPER: Similar to Google Goggles, this program allows users to take a photo, scan a barcode, or say they name of what they are looking for and then be linked to corresponding product information and reviews.
  • SWIFFY: This product takes Adobe Flash *.swf files and converts them to HTML5. It is particularly helpful for web developers and designers who want to convert previously published materials into open source formats.
  • THE APP INVENTOR (for Android): Though it was originally created as a means of teaching children about basic programming, the App Inventor was adopted by mature users who increased its capabilities to produce sophisticated Android Apps. Though Google ended development on the App Inventor, they made it available to the community as an open source project.
  • GOOGLE BODY: This program is the equivalent of Google Map for the human body. Similar to the App Inventor, development on the project has ceased and it is now available to the open source community. (Wen)

Google’s use of experimentation and OSS as part of product development has led to a breadth of innovative programs. In reference to publishing, this software has been used in the Booktype program developed by Czech non-profit, Sourcefabric. The Booktype program uses OSS and cloud hosting, so that books can be created digitally and openly. This allows for greater community collaboration when producing titles. Another strategy publishers might consider is hosting spaces for public experimentation, as Google has done with their Chrome Experiments.

After launching Google Chrome, the company initiated Google Chrome Experiments in March 2009. Created as a site, it features a gallery of creative web experiments built with open source technologies (including HTML5, Canvas, SVG, and WebGL) with the intention of encouraging experimentation on the web. Projects are made and submitted by artists and programmers from around the globe and include the following:

  • MULTIPLAYER PIANO: This experiment features an onscreen keyboard that you can play at the same time as other visitors to the site. The location of each individual is listed by his or her cursor so you can see where each participant is from.
  • 100,000 STARS: This experiment takes the viewer on a tour of the solar system, accompanied by text and music. The viewer can pause the tour at any time and zoom in and out or rotate the screen. (About This Site)

Hosting crowdsourced experiments enables Google to collect data on what technologies and features appeal to their users. From a business perspective, this is a means of gathering input for the development of future products. Google’s support of experimentation is not only used for their own benefit, however. The corporation has further collaborated with museums, musicians and galleries to produce engaging videos and installations.

One of such collaborations is The Chrome Web Lab, which was created by Google in conjunction with the Science Museum in London. It features five interactive experiments that “push the boundaries of what is possible in a modern browser and a museum experience that’s fully web connected.” (Madile) All actions on the site correspond to activities that occur at a lab set up in the museum and features the following:

  • SKETCHBOT: After taking a photo with your computer’s camera a robot at the lab sketches your portrait in real time.
  • UNIVERSAL ORCHESTRA: Similar to the Multiplayer Piano, viewers can work together to create a composition that is played on a range of instruments at the London lab.
  • TELEPORTER: After setting up 360-degree video cameras in three locations across the globe, visitors to the Chrome Web Lab can watch live footage of each of the spaces.
  • DATA TRACER: After typing a subject and selecting an image, the Data Tracer traces out a path on a map from the Chrome Web Lab to where the image originated.

Along with these experiments, Google offers videos discussing the technology used in each, demystifying the creation of the programs. (Madile)

Outside of the Chrome Web Lab, Google has continued to collaborate with musicians and galleries by employing open source technologies and user interaction. Aaron Koblin, Google’s Creative Director of the Data Arts Team, worked with director Chris Milk to create a music video for Canadian Indie band Arcade Fire. The video, titled The Wilderness Downtown, uses HTML5 and Google Maps to track and show a home connected to an address input before the video begins.

This Exquisite Forest is another collaboration, this time with Google and London’s Tate Modern. Based off the surrealist game, the Exquisite Corpse, This Exquisite Forest requires the audience to collectively assemble a series of animations from a common theme using an online drawing tool. (Koblin) Along with the animations, contributors can use keywords to describe how the animation should sound, which is converted by a music engine into a score. The project is available to view online and was presented as an instillation at the Tate beginning in July 2012. (Burton)

Through the Google Labs, Google Chrome Experiments, the Chrome Web Lab, and collaborations with museums, musicians, and galleries, Google has encouraged experimentation from its users, which the corporation has then applied to its programs. Offering Open Source Software that users can build upon and change has been a clever way for the corporation to assess consumer needs and wants without explicitly requesting for information. OSS has already been used in the production of academic journals and could further be applied to trade publishing in programs where readers experiment with Apps and eBooks. The potential to experiment with new technologies could well get technophobes excited for the web.


Works Cited:

“About.” OSP – Blog: Open Source Publishing – Graphic Design Caravan.

“About This Site.” Chrome Experiments.

Burton, Jane. “Explore This Exquisite Forest with Google and Tate.” Tate. July 20, 2012.

Ehrlich, Brenna. “Google Labs Will Shut Down.” Mashable. July 20, 2011.

Gilbert, David , Liz Lee-Kelley, and Maya Barton. “Technophobia, gender influences and consumer decision-making for technology-related products.” European Journal of Innovation Management 6.4 (2003): pp. 253-263. Print.

“Information.” Aaron Koblin.

Koblin, Aaron. “The Evolution of This Exquisite Forest.” Google Chrome Blog. December 11, 2012.

Madile, Max. “Chrome Web Lab: The Experiment Continues.” Google Chrome Blog. October 29, 2012.

Parr, Ben. “Google Labs Closure Won’t Affect Google 20% of the Time.” Mashable. July 20, 2011.

Poeter, Damon. “Google to Shutter Google Labs in ‘Streamlining’ Effort.” PCMAG.COM. July 20, 2011.,2817,2388814,00.asp

Rean. “10 Google Lab Experiments You Should Know.” HONGKIAT.COM.

“The Open Source Definition.” Open Source Initiative.

Wen, Howard. “8 Cool Google Lab Projects Spared by the Axe.” CIO.

“Who is Sourcefabric?” Sourcefabric, 2013.