Two Days at Google

I was fortunate to spend last Thursday and Friday at Google participating in the Google Mobile Faculty Summit. It was my first trip to the Googleplex and I came away impressed both with the work that Googlers are doing and with the obvious contributions the research community has made to these new mobile technologies. In more than a few cases, talented Googlers are doing the other 99% of the work required to bring promising ideas contributed by the research community to fruition. Here’s a write-up that hopefully conveys my excitement without violating the NDA that I didn’t sign…​

Matt Welsh organized the workshop. Over a day and a half about twenty 1 faculty researchers—​and some of their students, which was a nice feature—​heard from ten Googlers about their projects, which are at various stages of completion. Briefly:

  1. Project Loon: balloons providing wide-area Internet coverage.

  2. The Physical Web: Google’s web-based approach to the "Internet of Things".

  3. Nearby: An API for determining whether two devices are, well, nearby.

  4. Project Fi: Google’s entry into the cellular service space built on top of both Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s mobile data networks.

  5. Sensor Hub: a way to make the sensing required by context awareness more energy efficient.

  6. Mobile Content Delivery: new interfaces for mobile devices to interrogate and interact with mobile data networks.

  7. Mobile Web Performance: making the Web better for billions of new users with limited connectivity.

  8. Project Soli: near-field radar enabling new touch-free device interaction.

  9. Project Iris: contact lenses with embedded electronics for sensing blood glucose levels to help people with diabetes.

  10. Project Volta: improvements to battery lifetime for Android.

Overall it was a fascinating and diverse set of projects that illustrates some of the breadth of Google’s interests as well as the many ways that Googlers leverage Google’s resources to have enormous impact. Sometimes it’s by trying things nobody else will try, like Internet balloons, instrumented contact lenses, or tiny radars. Other times it’s by leveraging their dominant market position to influence other parts of the technology space, to push hardware makers to embrace the physical web or incorporate sensor hubs into new devices, or to drive mobile data prices down by competing with existing cell providers. Other times all you need to be is Google. For example, if you want to experiment with Internet protocol replacements, it helps to have billions of devices and mobile browsers that you can migrate at will to your new protocols ( 1, 2).

But there was an overwhelming sense of practicality to most of the projects that were presented, along with a willingness to embrace and discard existing technologies as needed. I came away with the impression that Google has a lot of smart people working hard to solve real problems aided by tremendous resources. And I was also happy to see the web being embraced by many of the speakers, which seems like a loosely-coordinated pushback against the app explosion 2.

As an academic researcher, it was also gratifying to clearly see the contributions of the mobile systems community being brought to fruition at Google. For example, the sensor hub work has emerged alongside very similar work by researchers at UW. And the Nearby project does a nice job of combining many point solutions to the proximity problem proposed by researchers over the years into a single reliable solution. So it may be hard for academic labs to stay ahead of Google, but it’s possible, and it’s also possible to see your ideas incorporated into a very well-designed product or service at some point in the future.

I also very much enjoyed the talks by the academics in the audience. (All of the slides, including mine, are available here.) Interestingly, there was a lot of work on two topics: wireless connectivity and wireless sensing. Seven out of the fifteen faculty talks were on one of these two topics, while the rest were all over the place. As an attempt at complete mashup of the academic research, I guess we can look forward to a future where all of our five-thousand personal interactive continuously-adapting wirelessly-powered devices are busily communicating using every available waveform to enable seamless computing experiences while carefully collecting measurements of every kind of electromagnetic radiation and performing continuous vision processing to track our movements, breathing, and posture as we move around the house so that they can intervene as appropriate—​all while efficiently communicating over the mobile web, particularly in emerging markets. And cars. There: 15/15.

Anyway, many thanks to Matt, Roy, Andreas, Melanie and Deanna for organizing the workshop, and to the many Googlers and academics who participated. Very thought provoking.

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