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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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iPhone’s ‘Do Not Disturb’ Feature Is Actually Reducing Distracted Driving (a Little)
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While it’s oh-so-tempting to quickly check a text or look at Google Maps while driving, heeding the siren call of the smartphone is one of the most dangerous things you can do behind the wheel. Distracted driving led to almost 3500 deaths in the U.S. in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and even more non-fatal accidents. In the summer of 2017, Apple took steps to combat the rampant problem by including a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” setting as part of its iOS 11 upgrade. And the data shows that it’s working, as Business Insider and 9to5Mac report.

The Do Not Disturb While Driving feature allows your iPhone to sense when you’re in a moving car, and mutes all incoming calls, texts, and other notifications to keep you from being distracted by your phone. A recent survey from the insurance comparison website EverQuote found that the setting works as intended; people who kept the setting enabled did, in fact, use their phones less.

The study analyzed driver behavior recorded by EverDrive, EverQuote’s app designed to help users track and improve their safety while driving. The report found that 70 percent of EverDrive users kept the Do Not Disturb setting on rather than disabling it. Those drivers who kept the setting enabled used their phone 8 percent less.

The survey examined the behavior of 500,000 EverDrive users between September 19, 2017—just after Apple debuted the feature to the public—and October 25, 2017. The sample size is arguably small, and the study could have benefited from a much longer period of analysis. Even if people are looking at their phones just a little less in the car, though, that’s a win. Looking away from the road for just a split second to glance at an incoming notification can have pretty dire consequences if you’re cruising along at 65 mph.

When safety is baked into the design of technology, people are more likely to follow the rules. Plenty of people might not care enough to enable the Do Not Disturb feature themselves, but if it’s automatically enabled, plenty of people won’t go through the work to opt out.

[h/t 9to5Mac]

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Apple Wants to Patent a Keyboard You’re Allowed to Spill Coffee On
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In the future, eating and drinking near your computer keyboard might not be such a dangerous game. On March 8, Apple filed a patent application for a keyboard designed to prevent liquids, crumbs, dust, and other “contaminants” from getting inside, Dezeen reports.

Apple has previously filed several patents—including one announced on March 15—surrounding the idea of a keyless keyboard that would work more like a trackpad or a touchscreen, using force-sensitive technology instead of mechanical keys. The new anti-crumb keyboard patent that Apple filed, however, doesn't get into the specifics of how the anti-contamination keyboard would work. It isn’t a patent for a specific product the company is going to debut anytime soon, necessarily, but a patent for a future product the company hopes to develop. So it’s hard to say how this extra-clean keyboard might work—possibly because Apple hasn’t fully figured that out yet. It’s just trying to lay down the legal groundwork for it.

Here’s how the patent describes the techniques the company might use in an anti-contaminant keyboard:

"These mechanisms may include membranes or gaskets that block contaminant ingress, structures such as brushes, wipers, or flaps that block gaps around key caps; funnels, skirts, bands, or other guard structures coupled to key caps that block contaminant ingress into and/or direct containments away from areas under the key caps; bellows that blast contaminants with forced gas out from around the key caps, into cavities in a substrate of the keyboard, and so on; and/or various active or passive mechanisms that drive containments away from the keyboard and/or prevent and/or alleviate containment ingress into and/or through the keyboard."

Thanks to a change in copyright law in 2011, the U.S. now gives ownership of an idea to the person who first files for a patent, not the person with the first working prototype. Apple is especially dogged about applying for patents, filing plenty of patents each year that never amount to much.

Still, they do reveal what the company is focusing on, like foldable phones (the subject of multiple patents in recent years) and even pizza boxes for its corporate cafeteria. Filing a lot of patents allows companies like Apple to claim the rights to intellectual property for technology the company is working on, even when there's no specific invention yet.

As The New York Times explained in 2012, “patent applications often try to encompass every potential aspect of a new technology,” rather than a specific approach. (This allows brands to sue competitors if they come out with something similar, as Apple has done with Samsung, HTC, and other companies over designs the company views as ripping off iPhone technology.)

That means it could be a while before we see a coffee-proof keyboard from Apple, if the company comes out with one at all. But we can dream.

[h/t Dezeen]

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