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Google goes to sea, and the world wonders why

An unusual structure on a barge in Portland Harbor has had people buzzing.

SHAWN PATRICK OUELLETTE/PORTLAND PRESS HERALD

An unusual structure on a barge in Portland Harbor has had people buzzing.

Google Inc. and its wealthy founders are known in business circles for their fixation on fanciful vessels — from the self-driving car to hot air balloons that provide high altitude Internet connections. The founders even have their own private air force.

And now it looks like the company is launching its own navy.

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Bobbing in the harbor of Portland, Maine, is a barge stacked four stories high with shipping containers that are being converted into a single floating building of some kind, the work done under an extraordinary cloak of secrecy that itself is a hallmark of Google’s many research projects.

“We have a client that has asked us not to communicate anything in regard to this project or the relationship in any way,” said Peter Vigue, chief executive of Cianbro, the Maine construction firm handling the barge project.

Running several hundred feet long and several dozen feet high, the barge complex had initially been put together in New London, Conn., before being towed several weeks ago to Portland for additional fitting. A second barge is under construction in San Francisco under equally tight wraps, with Coast Guard and harbor officials telling local media they had to sign nondisclosure pacts with the developer that forbid them from saying anything about the project.

But in recent days news accounts in the Portland Press Herald and other local media and tech blogs began to focus on Google as the likely developer, not unreasonably given the other unusual projects the company has undertaken. It finally took a Freedom of Information Act request from The Day newspaper of New London for the Coast Guard to confirm this week that Google was behind the barge; separately a Coast Guard official in San Francisco confirmed the barge there was also the work of the Internet giant.

And the Big Secret? High-end mobile showrooms, according to the CBS affiliate in San Francisco, that the company can tow to various ports to demonstrate new technologies being developed at Google(X), the company’s highly secretive laboratory devoted to advanced research projects.

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The Day reported that the documents from the Coast Guard showed that among the officials involved in the planning of the New London barge was Michael Tierney of the Google Glass project, the company's effort to develop a wearable computer mounted to an eyeglass frame.

The barge containers could even be separately loaded onto trucks and dispatched anywhere in the United States, or loaded onto cargo ships and sent overseas, according to sources quoted by the CBS affiliate.

Google did not respond to requests for comment.

It may seen ironic that a company that made its fame and fortune providing easy access to information for hundreds of millions of people around the world is all but a closed book when it comes to its own activities. But as it branched out from its core search engine business, Google became much more circumspect about its various business enterprises, partly to keep competitors such as Apple Inc. in the dark as it prepared to invade their markets.

In his new book titled “Dogfight,” about the ferocious competition between Google and Apple, author Fred Vogelstein writes that Google developed its Android mobile phone software under security so tight that the restrictions angered other Google employees. For example, Google built a cafeteria that for a time was open only to employees working on Android.

Some of Google’s tightlipped ways rival those of Apple, which is infamous for developing its new products under the tightest of secrecy.

Such a vise grip on information can also be a deliberate part of a company’s strategy to build anticipation for its new products. Technology analyst Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technology Associates in Wayland, wondered if the secrecy surrounding the barges in Portland and San Francisco is an effort by Google to get everybody’s attention.

“They’re taking a page out of Apple’s book, which is to build the buzz by having something mysterious and not telling you what it is,” he said. But Kay hoped he was wrong. He’d rather see Google use the barges to develop some world-changing breakthrough worthy of all the secrecy.

“It would be sad if it was just a marketing thing,” Kay said.

Google’s most public new venture currently is Glass, which is in use by several thousand testers and software developers. The device sports a small glass cube above the right eye that is the computer’s screen, or monitor, with a tiny video camera adjacent. The eyeglass arm along the right temple acts as a slender trackpad, and Glass also responds to voice commands.

Just this week Google demonstrated a new version of Glass, and it expects to release a more finished product to the public next year.

Google’s vast success has also given its founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, seemingly unlimited funds to indulge their pet projects. Between them Page, Brin, and Google chairman Eric Schmidt own at least six aircraft, including a Boeing 757 and 767, and four Gulfstream V corporate jets.

They are also financing other projects so audacious they lend themselves to ridicule in the early going. But Google’s self-driving car, for example, powered by software called Google Chauffeur, has already been successfully road tested in California, navigating even the twisting hairpin turns of the famous Lombard Street in San Francisco.

The balloon Internet idea was also successfully air tested in New Zealand earlier this year, according to news accounts. Cheekily dubbed Project Loon, the proposal calls for a floating communications network made up of hot air balloons about 15 miles above portions of the Earth without reliable Internet connections, such as Africa.

Yet another venture is called the Google Lunar XPrize, a competition with awards in the millions of dollars to teams that develop robots and vehicles that can travel on the moon, as well as pursuits in ocean- and land-based exploration and transportation.

However, one project seemed too far fetched even for Google: the “space elevator.” Just as it sounds, this involves a tethered vehicle that can ferry people and freight to and from outer space, and it has long captured the imagination of fantasists and futurists. Inevitably Google has repeatedly been pegged as developing just such a project.

Alas, for all its extraterrestrial interests, Google has publicly said the space elevator is not in its orbit.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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