Google X

The Project Loon team from Google launches a high-altitude balloon carrying electronic testing equipment into the skies above Dos Palos, Calif., July 26, 2013.

GARY REYES | Bay Area News Group

In a rare public speech, Google Inc. CEO Larry Page once suggested the tech industry needs “safe places where we can try out new things” without rules or interference. Some people thought he was describing a futuristic fantasy, perhaps a remote desert island where robots roam free.

But Page already has the next best thing in Google X, the secretive skunk works where company scientists get plenty of resources and free rein to work on things like self-driving cars, Internet-connected balloons and flying power generators.

At a time when other tech companies have trimmed research budgets or focused tightly on their core business, Google’s X division is pursuing a range of seemingly outlandish ideas. And while much of it is hush-hush, the X projects announced publicly may push the envelope even further than Google’s ventures into ultrafast fiber networks, industrial robotics and high-tech home thermostats.

“They’re doing a lot of incredibly weird stuff,” said Rob Enderle, analyst at the Enderle Group, “but they’re rolling in money.” Google made a $13 billion profit on $60 billion in sales last year, mostly from online ads. “That gives them a lot of latitude in what they invest in.”

While the X division is housed in two nondescript office buildings near Google’s main campus, it’s been compared to “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory” by the man who runs it on a daily basis. Eric “Astro” Teller, an entrepreneur and scientist who reports to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, once described his staff as “Peter Pans with Ph.D.s.”

“They understand that their mission is to think really audaciously, to incubate magic,” Teller said in a speech last year, adding that X’s goal is to “have an impact on the world and then worry later about making money on it.”

The message is classic Page and Brin. Google’s co-founders built their powerful Internet search engine as grad students and, as they enter middle age, still espouse a passion for ideas that sound like science fiction.

Consider the driverless cars, often seen near Google’s headquarters or zipping up and down Highway 101. Brin and Page said they’re convinced cutting-edge sensors and navigational software can eliminate thousands of traffic accidents now caused by human error.

Teller described the mandate for X this way: Identify some really big problems that Google might be able to solve by applying technology in a radically new way.

“There’s this open question of what Google is going to be, a decade or more from now,” Teller said. “Google X isn’t the only answer to that question, but it was built as a place to do some of the exploration to find some great new problems for Google to tackle.”

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