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Google's 'pirates' tell Pixar-inspired stories to showcase tech

Regina Dugan of Google's skunkworks division gave an update on projects Ara and Tango, but it was a Disney-styled animation that stole the show at Google I/O.

Legendary Disney animator Glen Keane has teamed up with Google's ATAP for a cutting-edge cartoon called Duet. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Regina Dugan of Google's Advanced Technology and Projects division took the stage to kick off the second day of Google I/O on Thursday, most people probably weren't expecting a motivation speech and a bit of profanity along with their 9 a.m. coffee.

"For the next 45 minutes, you're going to get a glimpse of pirates trying to do epic shit," the former head of DARPA told the standing-room only crowd in Room 2 at the Moscone Center West as the audience cheered.

"Pirates" is how the 51-year-old Dugan refers to her colleagues on ATAP, the experimental tech development arm of Motorola that Google sliced away before selling the rest of the phone maker and its patents to Lenovo. ATAP is now a part of Android, but it's clear that Android and ATAP have different goals in mind.

The 2-year-old skunkworks ATAP group is a "terrible place" to build a career, Dugan said, explaining that ATAP projects have two-year development cycles. Once a project's clock runs out, the people working on it move on. While several projects have been discussed in public before, including a temporary electronic tattoo that can unlock your smartphone, Google has let slip much more about ATAP's projects Ara, Tango, and Storyteller.

ATAP director Regina Dugan started off day two of Google I/O 2014 with lots of applause and a well-received feel-good moment. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Of the temporary electronic tattoo, Dugan said that it "will soon be able to authenticate your Moto X" smartphone, but it was the other projects that the session focused on.

Project Ara lead Paul Eremenko announced a challenge for developers interested in the modular smartphone project. His team will award $100,000 and an all-expenses paid trip to the next Ara developer's conference this fall to any developer or team that can build a working component for Ara that is not yet currently available for smartphones.

Ara's modular smartphone -- think an app ecosystem but for hardware components -- was only recently able to boot up without being tethered to a computer, and Eremenko warned that the live demo might go awry. The phone booted, showed the Android logo, and then froze halfway through rendering the clock on the log-in screen. Still, the audience loudly cheered.

Eremenko framed the problems that he thinks Ara can solve in altruistic terms: quickly swapping sensors that can analyze water or air quality, or sharing components in "a village," presumably a place with the money to only buy one mobile broadband chip. But Ara's proposed swappable components would be blasted out on a next-generation 3D printer and for a phone chassis that haven't been proven to work yet.

It's not that commercial success is an impossibility, but the odds are certainly stacked against Ara becoming more than a scientific tool or phone oddity.

A developer version of the Project Tango hardware on display at Google I/O, coming soon to a living room redecorator near you. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Likewise, Project Tango's Johnny Lee had a nugget of news that the audience whooped at: ATAP is partnering with LG to build a developer's tablet using Tango's 3D-mapping tech for 2015. At the conference, early adopters can sign up for a developer's tablet that will ship in a few months for $1,024 -- apparently, not the same as the LG model.

The LG-built tablet available next year is expected to meet consumer specifications, including a 4-megapixel, 2-micron camera, custom motion-tracking cameras, and integrated depth sensors, all powered by an Nvidia Tegra K1 with a 128GB SSD hard drive and 4GB of RAM.

Those processor specifications exceed what was needed by DARPA's robo-car in 2005 to drive 130 miles autonomously in the Mojave Desert, Lee said.

His live demo stuttered for a bit on the failure of an HDMI cable. But once it was running, he was able to show the audience how a game environment had been built over 3D-imagery using the Unity game engine to create a basic 3D game. He also showed how Tango's tech could be used to map the interior of buildings, and even the stage, without the help of GPS or Bluetooth connectivity. As he moved across the stage and raised and lowered the Tango tablet, the on-screen representation responded accordingly.

"It's accurate to 1 percent," Lee said.

"Tango and Ara have accomplished in months what would normally take years," Dugan said. "Open wins over closed, and speed is essential. It doesn't take us 9 to 12 months to sign contracts; it takes us less than 30 days," she said, pointing to the extensive list of universities and companies alike that have partnered with ATAP's aggressive development timeline.

Dugan went in a different direction to score the feel-good moment of the conference. Instead of diving into next-generation hardware concepts, she introduced "Duet," the latest animated story for ATAP's Motorola Spotlight Storyteller app.

With a quote from Pixar's John Lasseter projected on the screen behind her, "Technology inspires art, art challenges technology," she explained why the hardware-focused ATAP was making cartoons.

"This industry spends billions every year making tasks more efficient," she said. "If you want to do something that touches people emotionally, you go running to storytelling."

Storyteller's first two projects, "Windy Day" and "Buggy Night," were created using the latest in computer graphics and hardware on Pixar's open graphics standard. They told Pixar-style short stories that you could follow by moving your phone to track an object at the heart of the story's plot -- in the case of "Windy Day," directed by Pixar's Jan Pinkava, you followed a mouse in pursuit of a tall, red hat.

"Duet" combined ATAP's hardware know-how with the hand-drawn animation of Disney legend Glen Keane. Dugan lauded him as "a singularity on this planet...He's an amazing rendering engine, but high latency," as the crowd laughed. Keane is known for his character designs on "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," and "Aladdin," among others.

"I see drawing as a seismograph of the soul," he said.

Used to the 24 frames-per-second of film animation, Keane had to draw more than 10,055 drawings to make "Duet" look good on a smartphone's 60 frames-per-second standard. Dugan noted that the story was strong enough to warrant hiring two Stradivarius violin players as part of the music team that composed and played "Duet's" score.

"We stand on one another's shoulders to achieve higher," Keane said. He then showed "Duet" as a linear narrative, a short film about a young dancing girl and a boy growing up. Without ruining the story for you when it comes out in interactive form in a few months, the audience whooped and cheered when the credits rolled a few minutes later.

ATAP's goals of improving technology through setting extremely high goals and rapidly building and breaking new models until it gets something workable have yet to pan out. But that's OK with ATAP's pirate captain.

"ATAP is full of doer dreamers, like you, even when we might fail," Dugan said.