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Extreme keynoting: How Google pulled off its skydiving stunt

At the Google I/O conference this week, people jumped out of an airship above downtown San Francisco to demonstrate one of the many uses for Google's Glass technology, in a first-of-its-kind stunt.

Iron Man Tony Stark and Googleman Sergey Brin
Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man Tony Stark and Googleman Sergey Brin.; Stephen Shankland/CNET

Sergey Brin stormed on the stage in his Google Glasses like Iron Man Tony Stark, prepared to give the crowd of 5,500 developers what he called an "awesome" display of technology and daredevil live action.

He gave the play-by-play as a troop of skydivers, bikers, and rope rappellers converged on the Moscone convention center, in a scene that could have been the opening sequence of a "Mission: Impossible" movie (if it wasn't part of Brin's Google I/O Glass demo). 

The skydivers made jumping out of an airship look easy. But before they could do it, Google had some challenges to overcome, not the least of which was how to get a good Internet connection at 4,000 feet.

Not only was it the first time skydivers using wing-suits got permission to jump out of a zeppelin airship in the U.S., but the feat posed some odd technical problems that Google engineers solved after a MacGyver moment or two.

For instance, the Glasses weren't designed to be worn by someone falling through the air at 200 miles an hour in bright sunlight. In early testing on the ground, engineers worried that the glare from the sun would interfere with the devices, according to Google. At one point, they applied electrical tape to the lenses to serve as a sort of filter. Eventually, they came up with a better solution -- they applied photochromic film to the lenses.

An even bigger problem to figure out was how to get the live video feed of what the skydivers were seeing through the Glasses and out to the Internet. This is not a simple feat in a city where cell phone reception itself can be spotty on the streets below.

How's this for ingenuity? Early on in the project, the team grabbed a Wok -- yes, the kind for sauteing vegetables -- and tried to use it as a broadcast dish. They attached a MiFi 4G LTE mobile Hotspot to it and pointed it up at the sky. That idea was abandoned and eventually Google ran microwave "point to point" network connection systems over Radio Frequency (RF) systems. Some of the jumpers had antennas in their wingsuits to send their Glass point of view down to the roof. On the roof Google had people aiming up at the jumpers 3-foot parabolic dishes with hand made mounts. Others wore proprietary "IP over RF" systems to send their Glass feed down to the roof.

But forget the technology. The question on many peoples' minds was who did the company have to bribe to get permission to carry out such a potentially dangerous and unprecedented stunt in downtown San Francisco? What started out as a joke at an early planning meeting about six weeks ago, ended up being the talk of the town and the highlight of the Google I/O developer conference this week. There was some red tape involved and costs for equipment and hiring the skydivers and the airship company, but apparently no money paid to officials. Google did pay an undisclosed amount to the city for things like off-duty police and permits, but no big fee for being able to do the stunt.

The company got cooperation from NASA Ames, which is in Mountain View, Calif., practically the company's backyard, as well as from the San Francisco Mayor's Office. And, most importantly, it got all the necessary approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration, which set additional stringent requirements to allow the stunt over a populated area. For instance, there were requirements governing experience of jumpers, height for opening chutes, and communications between the ground and the pilot and the air traffic controller. "They had a thorough vetting," said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.

And what was it like to jump over San Francisco wearing such high-tech goggles? "It was pretty spectacular," Keri Bell, the only female among the skydivers, told CNET today. "It was like having rock star status, being part of such a huge event."

Here's the video that was shown at the Google conference of the skydivers jumping from the airship:

Update, 5:37 p.m. PT: Notes that a MiFi 4G LTE mobile Hotspot was used in testing, and adds more technical and financial details.