Posted by: Rob Hof on April 20, 2009
Today, Google’s introducing some early-stage new products and services coming out of Google Labs at a press gathering hosted by R.J. Pittman, director of product management in search properties. I’ll be liveblogging the hourlong press conference being held at Google’s San Francisco (and there’s more here on the Google Labs blog):
Here’s Pittman: “We’re still not exactly sure where the economy is headed. But innovation is alive and well at Google.” The challenge is keeping the innovation framework going when the company is growing so huge.
Pittman mentions several recent innovations that are intended to “catalyze the Web,” such as Streetview and turn-by-turn directions, Audio Indexing, Picasa facial recognition, and Google Translate.
“The (innovation) garden is actually overgrown.” Lots of local opportunities getting built off Google’s overall platform. The key is getting users’ participation earlier in the food chain of product development, to get products in the hands of consumers as soon as possible. “We think it’s really important to engage the users as soon as possible.”
OK, now on to the products. First up is Radhika Malpani, director of engineering, on Similar Images. You can take a favorite query, say on Porsches, and specify the color. Now taking that further. You can do a search on Paris, say, and you get images of the city, the star, etc. Then you can choose which image for which you want more that are similar. Google looks at color, texture, and shape to determine similarity, with a little metadata (accompanying information) to help.
She shows a demo: Search on beaches, and you get a wide variety of images, most of which probably aren’t what you had in mind. So you can click on a Similar Images link under each image to get more of the same. You can keep clicking on images to get closer and closer. Hundreds of millions of images are in the database.
Pittman says they’re putting this out even before they have similar images for each image search to get quick feedback.
Pittman again on another new product coming into GoogleLabs: News Timeline. This is legendary former Apple software engineer Andy Hertzfeld’s project. Hertzfeld: It’s Google’s mission to organize the world’s information, and certain information is best organized by time. That’s the purpose of this project.
The demo: It’s literally a timeline with stories listed under each date and you can scroll back and forward in time. You can also scroll up and down to get more stories. The stories include video and other rich media that plays when you click on them. And of course you can make a search and then those stories relevant to those queries show up. “It’s a visual map of what’s going on in the world.”
You can search by source, such as a range or magazines or specific magazines, newspapers, Wikipedia events, movies, blogs, sports scores, prizes, and so on—looks like about 15 or 20 sources or categories. Hertzfeld says Google might eventually eliminate that “corpus” selection so you don’t have to specify the specific sources. You can do the timeline daily, weekly, yearly, or even by the decade.
Lots of other interesting things to display on the timeline besides news. He shows how you can choose to look at Time magazine, with Time covers for each month decades back. Or Popular Science. And if you click on the covers (except for Time, which doesn’t make full content available for free), you go into the Google Books interface to see the full issue content that has been scanned in.
It’s essentially a new user interface for the same information already available through Google News (and in some cases Google Books or publications Google has scanned, under license from the content owners).
No plans to make money from it yet. “Literally we haven’t thought about it all.” Pittman adds: “We’re doing this to push the envelope on the user experience.”
OK, last announcement from Pittman: It’s a new Google Labs itself—that is, the site for the company’s products in development. You’ll be able to follow what’s new in Labs more easily. You’ll also be able to comment on and rate projects and engineer profiles. There are new “Meet the engineers” profiles.
And that’s it. Even with all the projects Google has cut or reduced in recent months, it’s clear there’s still a lot going on—at least that’s the impression Google wants to leave here.
After the event, Pittman added a bit more color that to my ears added up to this: Google wants to get products out faster, and to do that, it needs to get more people outside the company involved in providing feedback on early versions of products. Thus the redesign of the Google Labs site and today’s announcements on products that are being let out into the wild a bit earlier than they previously might have.