Google's five weirdest projects from its first 15 years

Happy birthday, Google. We'll take Project Loon. But we're not so sure about the driverless cars. 

Google
Google celebrates its 15th birthday today.

The Google doodle Friday depicts a bunch of letters cluttered around a birthday cake. Click on the play button, and the whole thing turns into a video game: playing as the blindfolded letter "G," you can take swings at a piñata, while scads of Google-colored candy fall on the ground. The game, of course, is a kind of birthday party for Google, which turns the ripe old age of 15 on Friday. 

Fifteen years – not bad for a company founded in 1998 by a couple of Stanford graduate students, and based in a Menlo Park garage. (Google now has approximately 30,000 employees in dozens of countries.) Perhaps the clearest evidence of Google's success is its online-search market share: 67 percent in the United States, and despite the attempts of scrappy Bing and persistent Yahoo, still solidly in control of the search game. 

But on this 15th birthday, we figured it might also be fun to recall some of the odder non-search projects Google has undertaken in recent years. Or maybe odd is the wrong word. How about interesting

Project Loon

The "loon" here is key – it connotes precisely how far-fetched this idea seems. But it's true: Google is currently in the process of launching a network of high-altitude balloons, fitted with solar panels and antennas, which would float about 12 miles above the surface of the earth.  

"If all works according to the company’s grand vision, hundreds, even thousands, of high-pressure balloons circling the earth could provide Internet to a significant chunk of the world’s 5 billion unconnected souls," Steven Levy of Wired recently wrote, "enriching their lives with vital news, precious educational materials, lifesaving health information, and images of grumpy cats." 

Driverless cars 

For some, it's the stuff of science fiction dreams. For others, it's an unholy terror.

Since last year, Google has been testing autonomously-driven cars on the streets of Nevada and California – some 300,000 miles had been logged as of August of 2012. "We’re encouraged by this progress, but there’s still a long road ahead," Google reps wrote last year. "To provide the best experience we can, we’ll need to master snow-covered roadways, interpret temporary construction signals, and handle other tricky situations that many drivers encounter." 

Google Glass

This one falls into the same category as driverless cars: It's science fiction, except in real life. A pair of smart eyeglasses that allows you to take pictures and videos of your surroundings, surreptitiously browse the Internet, or read reviews of the restaurant you just walked into. Granted, the glasses aren't exactly subtle – in fact, in our humble opinion, they're kind of weird looking. 

Among the early testers of Google Glass (expected launch date: 2014) was the novelist Gary Shteyngart, who recently wrote an essay on the experience of wearing the smart-goggles. 

"Wearing Glass takes its toll," he explained. " 'You look like you have a lazy eye,' I’m told at a barbecue, my right eye instinctively scanning upward for more info. 'You look like you have a nervous tic,' when I tap at the touch pad. 'You have that faraway look again,' whenever there’s something more interesting happening on my screen." 

The Google Lunar X Prize 

Google already pretty much conquered the earth, so why not the sky, too? The Lunar X Prize, which was announced in 2007, is a competition intended to produce a spacecraft that can land on the moon and send back hi-res images. Registration for the dozens of international teams closed in 2010; the deadline for a viable spacecraft is 2015. Not so far around the corner, in other words. 

And Google, in its description of the competition, doesn't exactly stint on the highfalutin language. 

"The X Prize foundation is an educational 501(c)3 nonprofit organization," reads copy posted to the X Prize site, "whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity, thereby inspiring the formation of new industries and the revitalization of markets that are currently stuck due to existing failures or a commonly held belief that a solution is not possible." 

That weird little Google orb charging thingie 

Enough said

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