Google's Mysterious Floating Barges: Glass Stores or Data Centers?

Two huge barges, one in the San Francisco Bay and another in Maine's Portland Harbor, are leading to much speculation among observers. Google is not commenting.

Google has quietly and mysteriously placed two tall, large floating barges on opposite ends of the United States, one in San Francisco Bay and the other in Maine's Portland Harbor, but so far the company isn't saying what the barges contain. That, of course, has caused a flurry of attention and guesswork by pundits, news reporters and local officials, according to reports from multiple sources around the country.

Heading the list of possible uses for the large floating platforms is the idea of floating, attention-gaining Google Glass stores, while others are speculating that the barges are to be used for remote data centers that could be floated wherever they are needed.

Of course, why stop there? Perhaps Google is adding new employee benefits such as floating recreational fishing piers for workers so they can relax during their breaks, or floating mausoleums just in time for frightening bicoastal employee Halloween parties.

In San Francisco, however, KPIX TV 5 is reporting that the four-story tall collection of shipping containers is being created as a "floating marketing center, a kind of giant Apple store … for Google Glass," according to an Oct. 25 story. That report is in contrast to other theories about Google's plans, including that the barges are homes for data centers. KPIX reported that "Google hopes to tow the completed structure from [the former Navy base at] Treasure Island across the Bay to San Francisco's Fort Mason, where it would be anchored and open to the public."

In the meantime, though, work has stopped on that plan because it turned out that Google didn't have a needed permit to build and float such a facility, according to the TV station. "Google has spent millions on this," a source close to the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission told KPIX. "But they can't park this barge on the waterfront without a permit, and they don't have one."

So far, Google's discussions with the Commission have been vague about the use of the vessel, KPIX reported.

Google did not respond to a request for comment from eWEEK on the company's plans for the barges.

The data center idea has also been garnering lots of rumors about the floating facilities, according to a report by CNN. "Google has banks of servers stored in warehouses all over the world, and floating data centers aren't unheard of," according to CNN. "Sitting on that much water would provide an obvious source of cooling, which is a big concern for data centers, and possibly even a source of power. And Google has a patent for such a project."

In Portland, Maine, where the other Google barge is on the water in Portland Harbor, the Portland Press Herald reported on Oct. 26 that the two projects, on either side of the the United States, are owned by the same company, By and Large LLC, based in Wilmington, Del., and appear to be linked. Experts contacted by the paper said they also buy into the data center theory. Google previously was granted a patent in 2009 for such structures, the paper reported.

Google Glass, the company's vision for an eyewear-mounted computer, has been a topic of conversation among techies since news of it first arrived in 2012. The first early Google Glass units began shipping in April 2013 to developers who signed up at the June 2012 Google I/O conference to buy a set for $1,500 for testing and development. It was the hit of the conference and Glass units for consumers are slated for release by the end of this year, according to an earlier Google report.

Several IT analysts contacted by eWEEK also shared their views about the mysterious barges.