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7 Google Projects That Have World-Changing Potential

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Google, one of the world leaders in web services and mobile retail, is also developing a few high-profile projects through its Google X Labs that are advancing technology, clean energy, and fine art.  

1. Google Self-Driving Car Project

In 2011, Google acquired two small start-up companies, 510 Systems and Anthony’s Robots, that are developing technology for an autonomous car. After the buyouts, Google engineers modified three 2008 Toyota Prii (or Priuses) with a special rig that mounted on top of the cars to scan the physical world for any obstacles—pedestrians, other vehicles—on the road. The tech giant also developed special software called Google Chauffeur that used Google Maps, Street View, and other GPS-based technologies that served as navigation tools.

In 2012, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles issued Google the first license for an autonomous car to test on public roads. Two years later, Google built a new prototype that didn't include a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. Google is currently planning to test their fully functioning self-driving cars on busy streets throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

Google is aiming to sell driverless cars to the general public or its technology to car manufacturers such as Ford, GM, and Toyota sometime between 2017 and 2020. But city and state driving laws have yet to catch up with the speed of technology; self-driving cars are only legal for use on public streets in Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan.   

2. Project Tango

In 2013, Google developed technology, called Project Tango, that helps smartphones interact with the real world through complex 3D mapping and scanning. When Android devices are outfitted with motion sensitive cameras and special software, Project Tango can read the interior layout of buildings and homes as its users walk around. The smartphone then translates the 3D space into a graphical interface in real time. Developers and engineers could use the information to build applications that can assist the visually impaired or help people navigate unfamiliar areas. Google also hopes to use Project Tango to flesh out Google Maps and Street View with the interiors of public buildings.   

3. Project Ara

These days, most consumers upgrade their smartphones every couple of years, with only minor changes to things like screen size, camera clarity, or processing speed. This creates not just a lot of manufacturing costs, but also a lot of digital waste. Google is trying to simplify the smartphone upgrade cycle with Project Ara, a retail module phone that will allow consumers to swap out old parts for newer technology instead of buying an entirely new phone. Smartphone manufacturers like Samsung and Motorola would make a skeleton phone, allowing consumers to pick and choose which features they need and upgrade them whenever they're ready.

The plan is to introduce inexpensive "starter kits" that would include a simple frame, display, battery, low-end CPU, and Wi-Fi access to emerging smartphone markets in developing countries. Google wants to lower the barrier and cost to smartphone hardware, while also introducing potential new users to Google web services. Project Ara will launch in Puerto Rico sometime in 2015.   

4. Google Art Project

In 2011, Google launched Art Project in a partnership with 17 international museums. The project features more than 32,000 important works of art from more than 40 countries. Google catalogs and reproduces each piece of art in very high quality resolution with vital information about the artwork; the project also offers its users a viral and interactive walk-through of paintings and sculptures using Street View technology.

Currently, Google Art Project features important pieces of art from 151 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Tate Gallery in London, the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the White House. Now anyone with an Internet connection can view priceless works of art from all around the world without leaving their home. 

5. Makani Power

In 2007, Google started funding Makani Power, a small startup company that developed technology to harness the power of wind through autonomous airborne wind turbines. These high-powered "kites" collect wind and transfer its energy back to Earth using a conductive tether. Although traditional wind turbines can only collect wind power as high as 600 feet up, Makani (Hawaiian for "wind") and Google—which officially acquired Makani Power in 2013—are building kites that can collect wind power up to 1000 feet high, where winds are stronger and more consistent. The Wing 7—a 26-foot-long self-flying kite—successfully produced 30 kilowatts of energy; the goal is to generate at least 600 kilowatts of energy with "kite power" to be competitive with fossil fuels, which Makani and Google hope could be a cheaper and cleaner alternative. "If we're successful, we can get rid of a huge part of the fossil fuels we use," said chief engineer Damon Vander Lind.     

6. Project Wing

In late 2014, Google announced Project Wing, which started with the idea of using drones to deliver defibrillators to people who were having heart attacks and evolved into self-flying drones that deliver products and disaster relief in remote areas in the world. The drones use a tether to drop an item from above; once the item is safely on the ground, the tether detaches and recoils. "Even just a few of these, being able to shuttle nearly continuously could service a very large number of people in an emergency situation," Google's Astro Teller told the BBC.

The first version of the drones had a wingspan of five feet and weighed in at about 19 pounds. This design was scrapped after tests in Australia showed that it didn’t do well in high winds, but Google has said they’re committed to the idea of drone delivery.

7. Project Loon

Project Loon is Google's ambitious plan to deliver high-speed Internet access to developing countries and remote areas without using traditional infrastructure like cell phone towers or underground cables. Instead, Google plans to use LTE bands and antennas attached to large helium-filled balloons to connect people to the Internet.

To create its telecommunication network, Google will deploy massive balloons—each 49 feet wide and 39 feet tall—made with sheets of polyethylene plastic in the stratosphere, 12 miles above the Earth's surface. Each balloon will create an LTE network of up to 24 miles on the ground. Each balloon would remain in service for about 100 days before being replaced.

Google believes that using balloons is more cost effective than launching communication satellites or building cell phone towers. And there's another benefit, too: There's no weather in the stratosphere, so if there's a hurricane or typhoon closer to Earth, the natural disaster below won't disrupt the network above, keeping it active on the ground, too.

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5 Things to Know About Amazon Go, the Company's Fully Automated Convenience Store
Stephen Brashear, Getty Images
Stephen Brashear, Getty Images

In Seattle, Amazon’s latest retail experiment is offering a whole new way to buy groceries. Launched on January 22, Amazon Go is a convenience store that requires no checkout whatsoever. It’s equipped with technology that can track which items you pick up—basic food items, pre-made meals and meal kits, booze, etc.—and automatically charge you through an app on your phone. You can be sure that if this pilot store is successful, you’ll see more Amazon Go stores roll out in other cities, too. Here are five things we know about the experience, according to The New York Times’s account of visiting.

1. YOU CAN’T GET IN WITHOUT THE APP.

The store doesn’t have a typical entrance. Instead of entering an open shopping space, visitors first have to pass through automatic gates that resemble the ones that you have to pass through to get into a subway station. To enter, you need to open up the Amazon Go app on your phone and scan your unique code. Once you’re in the store, Amazon’s AI will track the items you pick up and add them to your virtual cart, charging you for them when you leave.

2. YOU WON’T FIND ANY SHOPPING CARTS—OR LINES.

Because there’s no checkout, you don’t need a cart. Instead, you put your items into whatever bag you plan to carry them out in. Since the store is a convenience store, not a full supermarket (1800 square feet compared to the usual 42,000 or so of a grocery store), you probably won’t have so many purchases that you’d need a cart, anyway. And the lack of a checkout process means that you don’t have to wait in line to leave, either. All your purchases are being tracked in the app, so you just have to walk out the door. Amazon will send you an electronic receipt a few minutes after you leave.

3. HUNDREDS OF SMALL CAMERAS ARE ALWAYS WATCHING YOU.

Amazon is staying tight-lipped on how exactly the technology that it uses to track purchases works, but it involves sensors and hundreds of small cameras that can see everything happening in the store. “Amazon’s technology can see and identify every item in the store, without attaching a special chip to every can of soup and bag of trail mix,” according to the Times. The machine learning and computer vision it has developed can tell not just if you’ve picked an item off the shelf, but if you’ve put the item back and decided to purchase something else.

4. YOU MIGHT FEEL LIKE YOU’RE SHOPLIFTING.

There are very few retail experiences that allow you to simply pick up an item and walk out the door without handing anyone cash or a credit card, so making purchases at Amazon Go is likely to feel super weird for most of us. As you slip items into your bag and leave, you may feel like you’re shoplifting, the Times’s Nick Wingfield notes. But that doesn’t mean that you could get away with stealing something if you wanted to. Wingfield tried to trick the cameras by covering up a pack of soda before he took it off the shelf, but the cameras still managed to notice his purchase and charge him for it. A reporter for Ars Technica also tried to fool Amazon’s technology by picking multiple items up and putting them back in different places, but was unable to trip up the app’s shopping cart.

5. YOU’LL STILL SEE EMPLOYEES.

You may not need help checking out, but you may still need to interact with a human. If you want to buy alcohol, an employee waiting in the beer and wine section must check your ID before you can take that six-pack off the shelf. There are also various Amazon employees wandering around to help sort out technical issues and restock shelves, as well as chefs that you can watch prep meals in the kitchen.

But overall, you can easily get through an entire shopping trip without ever speaking to another human—or waiting in line.

[h/t The New York Times]

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How to Spot the Convincing New Phishing Scam Targeting Netflix Users
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Netflix may send customers the occasional email, but these messages will never ask you to provide them with personal or payment info. You'll want to keep this in mind if you encounter a new phishing scam that The Daily Dot reports is targeting the video streaming service's subscribers in Australia and the UK.

MailGuard, an Australian email security company, was the first to take notice of the fraudulent emails. While similar scams have targeted Netflix users in the past, this current iteration appears to be more convincing than most. At first (and perhaps even second) glance, the messages appear to be legitimate messages from Netflix, with an authentic-looking sender email and the company’s signature red-and-white branding. The fake emails don’t contain telltale signs of a phishing attempt like misspelled words, irregular spacing, or urgent phrasing.

The subject line of the email informs recipients that their credit card info has been declined, and the body requests that customers click on a link to update their card's expiration date and CVV. Clicking leads to a portal where, in addition to the aforementioned details, individuals are prompted to provide their email address and full credit card number. After submitting this valuable info, they’re redirected to Netflix’s homepage.

So far, it’s unclear whether this phishing scheme has widely affected Netflix customers in the U.S., but thousands of people in both Australia and the U.K. have reportedly fallen prey to the effort.

To stay safe from phishing scams—Netflix-related or otherwise—remember to never, ever click on an email link unless you’re 100 percent sure it’s valid. And if you do end up getting duped, use this checklist as a guide to safeguard your compromised data.

[h/t The Daily Dot]

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