Section Logo
Facebook   Twitter   LinkedIn   Email  

Page2of 2
< 1 2 >
Google Creative Lab
Do something epic

by Sam McMillan

Working with the Google engineering team in Mountain View, Google Creative Lab began Project Glass by making a video of a young man strolling around Manhattan, listening to music, getting directions to meet a buddy at a bookstore, buying a book called Ukulele in a Day, taking photos, leaving messages and reminders, sharing locations, making video calls and, in a clever grace note, playing a ukulele for his female friend. All done with no voice-over, no explanation, just the pure experience of what it would be like to wear and use Google Glass. So far the video has been viewed on YouTube more than 21 million times.

Wong says, “One of our proudest moments at the Creative Lab was the impact the video made on the development of Google Glass.” The relationship between Google Creative Lab and the engineers of Project Glass was so symbiotic that elements of the interface Wong’s team had comped for the video actually got incorporated into the final version of the device.

A prototype takes the poster, the video, the comp and “bakes them into code,” Wong says. Before a piece of Google technology launches, Wong explains, “We create a prototype to inspire people to make new work that’s even better.” Racer, a game designed to show off the capabilities of Google Chrome Mobile, harks back to the good old days when kids could spend hours wasting their weekends with slot car racetracks.

From the team at Google Creative Lab: "We started Project Glass to build technology that's seamless, beautiful and empowering. To share the world through your eyes. To get answers and updates, instantly. To be there when you need it, and out of your way when you don't."

The game works on any smartphone or tablet, from any manufacturer, running any operating system. Co-created by creative technologist Stewart Smith and creative lead Jeff Baxter, Racer downloads a portion of a slot car track that can be raced by up to five players who place their phones or tablets side by side. Lining up the devices allows the Chrome Mobile browser to build a slot car track using the screen real estate of each phone or tablet. Once the devices are synced up, the game is simple: hold your finger down on the screen and your “car” accelerates around the track
or goes whizzing off the boundary.

Recently demonstrated at the Google I/O developers’ conference in San Francisco, the Racer prototype began a few months earlier when a visiting Google engineer explained the technology. As Tait remembers, “I showed an initial sketch to Stewart and Jeff and asked, ‘Is this possible?’” Their answer: “Totally! And it’ll be fun.”

In January, a poster was created. People saw it, said, “I want that.” In February a video was made to show the game in action and in March a prototype was developed. And then engineering had a two-month sprint to make it work in time for Google I/O.

Watching the cars drive from one phone to another while music plays seamlessly in the background “has an element of magic,” Smith says. The early prototype, Baxter explains, “faked the magic trick first.” A day after Racer was released, Tait received a photo from a friend in England that showed his friend’s sons playing Racer in their bedroom. “It was total verification,” Baxter says.

In one of the conference rooms at Google Creative Lab a framed poster memorializes a print ad Google ran to promote Google+ Hangouts. The ad consists of an actual news clipping announcing that the Dalai Lama “scrapped plans on Tuesday to attend” the 80th birthday celebration of fellow Nobel winner Desmond Tutu because South Africa denied him a visa. The ad crosses out “scrapped plans on Tuesday to attend” and pencils in “joined” and “via hangout” in red. Those three simple words won the USA Today Print Ad Competition in 2012, worth a million dollars of free ad space in USA Today, which Google donated.

While the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu video chatting on Google+ Hangouts might be an example of extraordinary people doing ordinary things, Kevin Proudfoot, executive creative director at Google Creative Lab, is more interested in ordinary people doing extraordinary things. To shine a light on the “amazing things people are doing with what Google makes,” Proudfoot produced a series of videos to promote Google+ Hangouts.

The Virtual Photo Walks video, made by Proudfoot and creative director Josh Rosen, showcases the effort begun by photographer John Butterill, who decided to use Google+ Hangouts to take people on a walk through the woods near his home two hours north of Toronto. Two years ago, Butterill attached a phone to his camera and used the resulting video stream to create a Hangout, so people could see what he was seeing through the viewfinder of his camera. A day later a woman confined to her bed with multiple sclerosis joined the Hangout. Butterill took her on a virtual photo walk and posted the video. Soon, people from all over the world were on board, posting their own virtual photo walks in Cape Town, Ankara and Rome.

When Proudfoot heard about what Butterill was doing, he assembled a production team and joined Butterill for three days of shooting. Proudfoot says, “Our inspiration comes from things people do and make using Google products. Occasionally, we’ll capture and share one of these stories to show what’s possible when an individual combines something they’re passionate about with technology.” Like most Google Creative Lab efforts, the film puts the best of human nature front and center, while technology takes a backseat.

When people talk about movies and complain, “They don’t make them like that anymore,” they are wrong. At Google Creative Lab they do make them like that. Only shorter. The mindset that believes in the power of the individual to do great things isn’t a line from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it’s a description by Robert Wong of what his creative team brings to the table. “Stay small, stay scrappy, make a better hack. Your job description is to show up, be useful and figure out how we can add value.”

Tactically that means Wong “trusts in the power of scarcity,” in terms of time, resources and money. “We give a small team a week-end and see if they can solve a huge problem. We’re constantly trying to replicate the start-up feeling.”

Wong expects Google Creative Lab to change the future by imagining it. Wong tells his teams, “Do epic shit.” That’s a tall order. But he makes sure they never lose sight of the same wellspring of emotions shared by old-school directors like Capra, Sturges and Lubitsch. While most of us would be happy with keeping it real, Wong wants to keep it human.

“If you are telling a story,” Wong says, “I ask, ‘Does it move you or not? Does it make you laugh, cry or make your jaw drop?’ If not, it’s not good. If you are taking up someone’s time, you better give them something that’s valuable, whether that’s information, inspiration or joy.” ca McMillan
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at