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What's next for Google ATAP -- its 'epic shit' division -- after its leader goes to Facebook?

A hardware shuffle may be afoot.


ATAP, a secretive skunk-works project within Google, was once emblematic of the company’s zany, innovative streak. The search giant fed the unit cash to tinker with almost a dozen projects — from modular phones to wearables — that, in theory, it would spit out quickly. Its chief, Regina Dugan, dubbed the group “a small band of pirates trying to do epic shit.”

Now Dugan is leaving. Facebook poached the former director of the Pentagon’s DARPA research group to its own new hardware skunk-works division.

So what becomes of ATAP? It’s unclear.

But Dugan’s departure highlights how Google is revamping the way it structures its hardware and research and development internally — a necessary move as the company grapples with ways to insert itself in critical emerging technologies like virtual reality and wearable devices.

Dugan’s group at Google — formally, Advanced Technology and Projects — came with the Motorola acquisition in 2012, and stayed after Google dumped the phone maker. Its mission was to transition futuristic endeavors into Google products promptly, unlike the longer term, non-Google bets (self-driving cars, anti-death pills) now relegated to Alphabet companies.

ATAP had several initiatives, the most prominent among them Project Ara, a modular phone template, and Project Tango, a positional tracking camera system. Last year, ATAP introduced a microsensor that lets anything, even clothes, become a “wearable.”

That project hasn’t landed much beyond catchy headlines. But ATAP has delivered some impressive tech. Project Tango, which lets mobile devices map surroundings without GPS, is considered the closest technical solution for a key hurdle in making augmented reality — a big part of Google’s and other tech giants’ future vision — a real, workable thing.

Yet ATAP hit snags, even before its boss left. Project Ara lost its director, then said its shipments were delayed. Another big DARPA hire, security researcher Peiter Zatko, departed last summer.

When Google announced its Alphabet shuffle in August, several people speculated whether ATAP would move into one of the moonshot companies, like the X research lab, or become its own. But it stayed inside Google.

Some portions quietly shuffled into Google’s nascent virtual reality division. Project Tango, including lead Johnny Lee, is now on that team, which is building Tango’s first hardware partnership, with Lenovo, and very probably others. (Wired has a much longer look at Google’s VR ambitions out today.)

However, much of the rest of ATAP operates in this weird nether region of stealthy stuff inside the company, along with its Google Glass rehash. They don’t quite have a home yet — or at least Google hasn’t talked openly about it.

Sources outside Google but familiar with it say that a major reshuffle of these units is afoot, including potential leadership changes. (Recall that Tony Fadell, the currently beleaguered Nest CEO, also runs the Glass revamp.) It’s probably needed. Google has had little traction with hardware — sales are sluggish for devices on its Android Wear platform; its VR plans mostly revolve around software, video and Android phones, for now. And its overall strategy on these emerging tech products has never been entirely clear, even to people inside and close to Google.

But for that matter, hardware is not something that other software giants, like Facebook, have proven they can do well either.

Google wished Dugan its “very best” in a statement but declined to comment on ATAP’s future.

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