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When you've got thousands of the world's most brilliant engineers spending 20% of their time on whatever takes their fancy, cool software is the result.
When you've got thousands of the world's most brilliant engineers spending 20% of their time on whatever takes their fancy, you need a home for the results. Such a home would provide a safe environment for these fledgling experiments to test their wings — even if they fail. It would provide a playground where the geekier contingent of the general public can access ideas before those ideas are ready for public consumption. It would be associated enough with Google to get the brand benefits, and quarantined enough so that it doesn't put the core service at risk.
That playground exists at Google Labs. And while many of the experiments from the Lab have slunk away into obscurity (anyone remember Google X?), some of the big G's most popular current offerings had their genesis there. Google Alerts, Google Desktop, GOOG-411, Google Docs, Google Maps, and more, all alumni of this no-holds-barred, no-fear-of-consequences toy store.
Here are my current picks for the 10 coolest experiments in the Labs right now.
Why it's cool: Because there are clever people everywhere. Chrome Experiments is like an interactive science museum for grown-ups. Play Browser Ball ("more fun than it looks") or Browser Pong, mess around with strange attractors and Mandelbrot sets, or just kick back and enjoy the surprisingly seductive Scroll Clock.
Android Scripting Environment
What it does: Allows you to edit and execute scripts directly on an Android device.
Why it's cool: Because when you're coding, you want to code all the time — not just when you're sitting at your computer.
Google Fusion Tables
What it does: Makes it easy to manage and visualize large datasets in the cloud.
Why it's cool: So many reasons! The initial gallery of datasets is phenomenal, including info on climate change, health statistics, and country flags, to name a few. Charts and maps can be exported to Web sites and will update automatically. You can collaborate on the data itself with Google's normal functionality, apply filters, merge data from multiple tables… plus it's just fun to play with.
Google Code Search
What it does: Allows you to search public source code.
Why it's cool: Because if you're a coder, you shouldn't waste even a minute reinventing the wheel unless you happen to know for a fact that the wheel sucked and you could do a much better job.
Sky Map for Android
What it does: Turns your Android-powered mobile phone into an informational window on the night sky.
Why it's cool: Because three dots don't actually look like a centaur. Because sometimes you're curious about the heavens. Because you forgot that the Southern Hemisphere has a different set of stars. Because your kids will love it.
What it does: Allows you to use a picture taken on your mobile phone as a search query.
Why it's cool: For the same reason Shazam (the iPhone app that tells you what song is playing) is cool. When you see something interesting, you don't always know what words to use for a relevant search. Goggles lets you snap a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge (for example) and instantly access history, weather, nearby locales, and more. (Note: this feature is totally different from Gmail's Goggles, which requires you to do simple math to protect you from sending drunken e-mails.)
What it does: Overlays a template onto any Web site, showing what percentage of the online population will be able to view what area.
Why it's cool: Because it works on visible browser area, not screen resolution, it gives developers and designers an accurate, instant understanding of which key elements ("Donate Now" button, for example) are getting lost.
What it does: Community voting and crowdsourcing of questions and comments.
Why it's cool: Everyone wants a chance to be heard. Moderator offers a simple mechanism to allow entire audiences to participate in conversations without degenerating into total chaos.
Google Audio Indexing
What it does: Uses speech technology for videos to allow you to search them and jump to the point where particular phrases are spoken.
Why it's cool: The ability to index and search images and videos has made giant strides in recent years, and any steps along that path are worthwhile. Audio Indexing is far from perfect (a search for "New Zealand" pulled up David Letterman saying "he's only"), but it's definitely a functionality that will revolutionize the way we interact with video.
What it does: Like Google Earth, but for Mars.
Why it's cool: Mars is cool. Google Mars is beautiful. Also, if there were life on Mars, Google Mars would allow us to look at the roofs of their houses. Also, because it's astonishing that Google already has landmarks on Mars.