Google Places Robotics Firmly on Its Road Map to Innovation

Google is investing heavily in robotics as it expands its pursuit of technology innovations. The search giant acquired seven companies specializing in robotics.

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Google has quietly acquired seven companies that specialize in robotics as the company appears poised to head off into another intriguing high-tech direction, just as it has with self-driving cars, Google Glass and other Google initiatives.

The road map to robotics at Google was revealed in a Dec. 4 report by The New York Times, which described the purchases of the seven robotics companies in the last six months.

Spearheading the initiative is Andy Rubin, who formerly and very successfully ran Google's Android operating system efforts until earlier this year.

Not much more is being disclosed about the direction of Google's robotics plans, the story reported. "The company is tight-lipped about its specific plans, but the scale of the investment, which has not been previously disclosed, indicates that this is no cute science project."

Google, of course, has the money to try lots of different things, and the company does that on a regular basis. The company's self-driving car experiments have garnered lots of attention, as have its efforts to create and eventually sell Google Glass around the world.

"At least for now, Google’s robotics effort is not something aimed at consumers," The Times reported. "Instead, the company's expected targets are in manufacturing—like electronics assembly, which is now largely manual—and competing with companies like Amazon in retailing, according to several people with specific knowledge of the project."

Google has a name for its outside-the-box, big-thinking ideas—"moonshots"—as in reaching for the moon and seeing what can happen.

The recent work in robotics is one such initiative, The Times reported. "Like any moonshot, you have to think of time as a factor," Rubin told the paper in an interview. "We need enough runway and a 10-year vision."

The robotics companies that Google has acquired so far include Schaft, Industrial Perception, Meka, Redwood Robotics, Bot & Dolly, Autofuss and Holomni, according to The Times.

"Unlike Google’s futuristic X lab, which does research on things like driverless cars and the wearable Google Glass device, the robotics effort—moonshots aside—is meant to sell products sooner rather than later," the story reported.

Google is often an innovator in many areas outside of IT. In September, the company announced that it was launching a health company, called Calico, which will work on ways to help humans be healthier and live longer lives. Much of the details behind the new operation, however, have not yet been announced, including just what that goal means and how Google will take on its mission in these areas. What is known so far is that Calico's CEO will be Arthur D. Levinson, who serves as the chairman and former CEO of Genentech and as the chairman of Apple.

Google Glass has been a topic of conversation among techies since news of it first surfaced in 2012. The first Google Glass units began shipping in April 2013 to developers who signed up at the June 2012 Google I/O conference to buy an early set for $1,500 for testing and development. It was the hit of the conference. Google also then began shipping Glass units to lucky users who were selected in the #ifihadglass contest for the opportunity to buy their own early versions of Glass.

Each Google Glass device includes adjustable nose pads and a high-resolution display that Google said is the equivalent of a 25-inch high-definition screen from 8 feet away. The glasses also feature a built-in camera that takes 5-megapixel photos and video at 720p. Audio is delivered to wearers through their bones, using bone-conduction transducers.

A lot has been happening in the world of Glass lately. In November, a report surfaced that said Google is in talks to make Google Glass available with prescription lenses for wearers of prescription eyeglasses. The report said Google has been in talks about such an arrangement with VSP Global, a nationwide vision benefits provider that also makes frames and lenses. The possibility is intriguing nonetheless because it adds interesting possibilities to Google's previously acknowledged plans to create a version of Glass that could be used by people who wear eyeglasses.

Google Glass doesn't come with traditional lenses, but some users have modified them to work with their eyeglasses. Still, to make Glass work with prescription eyeglasses, an integrated approach like an agreement with a company such as VSP is probably a good idea to help such a project succeed.