How Google’s Chief Innovator Sergey Brin Is Making Science Fiction Real

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Stephan Lam / Reuters

Sergey Brin, CEO and co-founder of Google, during a product demonstration for the company's I/O conference in San Francisco on June 27, 2012

Who says innovation is dead in Silicon Valley? At a time when some pundits are questioning whether the region’s innovation engine is tapped out, Web-search titan Google offered a powerful display last week of why that’s not the case. In a stunt that set a high-water mark for high-tech demonstrations, Google co-founder Sergey Brin blew away the crowd of developers at the company’s I/O conference with Project Glass, one of Google’s high-profile secret ventures. And Brin’s work leading Google X, a top-secret research lab, shows how the Silicon Valley giant is at the cutting edge of next-generation technology.

In the demo, a team of skydivers wearing augmented-reality glasses jumped out of a plane above San Francisco, proceeded to conduct a live Google hangout session in midair and then landed on the roof of the Moscone Center, the fabled venue that has been the site of so many historic tech keynotes over the years. The divers were carrying precious cargo — a box containing the high-tech glasses — which they handed over to a team of mountain bikers, who jumped a gap in the roof and delivered the unit to climbers who rappelled down the side of the building. Another group of bikers raced through the lobby and into the auditorium, handing the device to a beaming Brim onstage. (Here’s the official video. Watch Brin’s behind-the-scenes account of how they pulled it off here.)

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Was it a publicity stunt? Of course, but the spectacle highlights how Google is so much more than a search advertising company. The Mountain View, Calif.-based tech giant is pushing the limits of technology, from wearable computing like Project Glass to self-driving cars to projects we don’t even know about because they remain locked away inside Google X, the R&D lab that Brin leads. Asked about Project Glass by Bloomberg TV after the demo, Brin explained, “It’s the notion of taking computing, which has moved from giant mainframes to laptops to phones, to perhaps an even lighter and more free-form factor. Something you can have with you when you’re falling through the sky at 120 miles an hour.”

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“It’s freedom,” Brin said. Later in the interview, the Google co-founder elaborated on Google X. It’s “about doing brand-new, risky technological things — making science fiction real,” he said. “We’re not thinking about other, existing products on the market today. We’re trying to do risky things that may or may not work out, but it’s got to be something really bold.”

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Brin’s comments on innovation were echoed in a must-watch interview that tech pioneer Marc Andreessen gave last week to Charlie Rose. Andreessen, a billionaire who co-founded Netscape and now leads a venture-capital firm, discussed how in Silicon Valley, innovation is not a means to an end — it is the end.

The core idea we have is that the fundamental output of a technology company is innovation. That’s very different from a lot of businesses. The fundamental output of a car company is cars, the fundamental output of a bank is loans. The fundamental output of a tech company is innovation. The value of what you’ve actually built today and what you’re shipping today is a small percentage of the value of what you’re going to ship in the future, if you’re good at innovation.

The challenge that tech companies face is they can never rest on their laurels with today’s product, they always have to be thinking about the next five years. If they’re good at running an R&D machine internally that produces innovation, they tend to do quite well over time. It’s when things go wrong internally and they stop innovating, which happens a lot, that the wheels tend to come off.

As some question whether the U.S. has what it takes to continue to drive innovation, it’s refreshing to know that Brin and his Google X team are still looking ahead and dreaming big. Here’s the full video of the Project Glass demo.