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Google X Labs: First Project Glass, next space elevators?

commentary From driverless cars to augmented-reality glasses, Google X Labs is tackling tough technology problems and getting them into the popular imagination.

Project Glass augmented reality glasses--a sign of more thing to come from Google X Labs?
Project Glass augmented reality glasses--a sign of more thing to come from Google X Labs?
I will be probably the last person to use augmented reality specs from Google's Project Glass. But I have to applaud the company for taking on far-out concepts at Google X Labs.

Google today for the first time acknowledged Project Glass, in which an eyeglass-like frame essentially brings the Internet to a small screen above the right eye. The demonstration video shows, from the perspective of someone wearing the glasses, a person communicating with friends and looking up information just as he might use a smartphone.

Personally, I don't need any more distractions as I move through my day, so I won't be buying Google Glasses 1.0 (if they ever come out).

What's more exciting for me is that the work from Google X Labs, which incubated Project Glass, is starting to see the light of day. (In a posting today, the Google Glass group called it "Google [x].")

What's Google X? Most of what we know about Google X Labs comes from a New York Times article last fall which said engineers are working on a driverless car and other robotics projects, the "Web of things," and even a space elevator.

The secret lab, where Google co-founded Sergey Brin is said to be deeply involved, is meant to tackle difficult technical problems and develop products that one day could bring Google new sources of revenue.

Just last week, Google released a video of its driverless car taking a legally blind man to the shopping center, a poignant example of how that technology could improve his life.

It remains to be seen whether the driverless car or Project Glass make any commercial impact at all. But this sort of research and emerging technology development is crucial not just to Google, but to businesses and innovation in general.

Google employees take the first user, Steven Mahan, for a ride in Google's driverless car. Screen capture by Martin LaMonica/CNET

There is no shortage of startups vying to be the next Facebook or develop a hot mobile app. But technology development in robotics, interconnected appliances and other devices (the Internet of things), and other "hard sciences" is slow-going and requires a multiyear commitment. Bell Labs, a historic font of technical innovation that we enjoy today, showed how focused, long-term commercial research and scientific discovery could be fruitful.

Google's top brass has already learned that the company can't take on every technical challenge. Mighty as the company is, it has had to shut down its ambitious Renewable Energy Less than Coal initiative and drop fledgling product lines, such as Google Power Meter and Google Health.

Google X Labs, too, will certainly hit some dead ends, and it could take years, rather than months, to bring out its products simply by the nature of the work.

The company's key advantage is that Google is a consumer-facing company with the financial means to pursue long-term research. That means it can popularize new technology concepts far better than, say IBM or Hewlett-Packard.

My first reaction to a driverless car was, "no thanks." But having becoming familiar with Google's project, I can see its virtues. Who knows, maybe I'll even wear one of those kooky computerized augmented-reality glasses some day, too.