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Is Google's X Lab the Xerox PARC of Our Day?

Spoiler alert: Maybe!

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I had the privilege of serving on the Xerox PARC Venture advisory board. This arm of Xerox PARC was created in the heyday of the early Internet, and was designed to look at technology inside Xerox PARC and mine the IP to either find ways to productize it or license it to bring new revenue into this hallowed research facility. High-tech historians know that some of the most important PC technology created was done so at Xerox PARC. Things like the mouse, Ethernet, the graphical user interface, object-oriented programming, laser printers and the original concept of the tablet/laptop, Alan Kay’s DynaBook, were all developed inside this lab. Historians will also know that while these were developed at PARC, most were commercialized outside of the company, and in many cases, Xerox did not make much money from these inventions.

I have to admit that during this time I was like a kid in a candy store. The advisory board would meet at various Xerox locations around the world, and researchers and scientists would show us what they were working on. We would then research the feasibility or marketability of the products put in front of us. A few would actually be sponsored by this Xerox Venture fund along with various VCs, while others would be licensed for use by big companies and startups that could use the IP to build and grow their companies. My NDA from this project prohibits me from telling what was funded or licensed, but during the time I spent as an adviser, we saw a few technologies come out of the labs and make it to the market, mostly through licensing agreements.

But what I discovered during my time as an adviser to the Xerox Venture Group was that these PARC researchers pretty much had carte blanche to go off and create the things of their imagination. While there were many projects around strategic goals for Xerox, some things I was shown were just one-off interesting inventions. For example, one product I saw that I can comment on was a two-handed mouse. The guys behind this were convinced that it would revolutionize computer input. However, using it was impossible, since both hands would be tied up using the mouse, and neither could be used to type at the same time. As you can imagine, this one did not get out the door.

Of course, Xerox PARC is not the only important research lab in Silicon Valley. SRI, HP, Intel and many others continue to do groundbreaking research that impacts our tech world. However, one lab in the Valley has the feel of Xerox PARC in that it seems to be open to working on all types of technology ideas that go way beyond the strategic goals of the company. Google’s X Lab has emerged as one of the more interesting tech research labs on the planet, and given its financial means, it could have a great impact on the role technology plays in our lives in the future.

Some of the publicly known research projects include self-driving cars, space elevators, Project Loon (balloons that hover over areas without Internet connection and give access), Project Wing (a drone delivery service), Google contact lenses that monitor glucose in tears, a wind-power company called Makani Power, Lift Labs, makers of a tremor-canceling spoon for Parkinson patients, artificial neural networks for speech recognition, the Web of Things, Google Glass, a hoverboard, and even experiments in teleportation.

These are publicly known projects, but who knows what else Google X Labs is doing, given a similar approach and what appears to be a strong commitment to broad research and a hefty budget to back it.

Of great personal interest to me are the contact lenses that can monitor blood sugar. As a diabetic, this particular research could make my life very different. Today, I have to test my blood at least four times a day to adjust my insulin doses. The idea behind these contact lenses is that, when worn, they use tears and take a blood sugar measurement to give people accurate readings a diabetic patient can act on. Diabetes has become a huge problem all over the world, and perfecting this technology could be a major breakthrough for diabetes care. However, this project underscores the idea that Google’s X Lab has the latitude to do research projects well beyond its strategic interests, and to do what are often referred to as “moonshots,” or creating new technologies that could have major worldwide impact.

Over the years, I have advised various research labs in my work but most were highly focused on creating strategic technologies that would benefit their bottom line. That does not seem to be case with Google’s X Lab. From what I hear, it is also working on food projects dealing with world hunger, environmental projects for protecting the planet, and many others that appear to stray well beyond their bottom-line interests. I applaud Google’s Xerox PARC-like approach to research with X Labs, and I’m intrigued that this lab has emerged as what might be called “the Xerox PARC of our age.”

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981, and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others. Reach him @Bajarin.

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