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Top 5 Google Labs projects

January 4, 2011

Published by The Christian Science Monitor

In the 1990s, many people knew the Internet by a different name: AOL. America Online was the lens through which millions viewed the Web. At the time, there was little reason to look anywhere else.

In 2011, Google has come perhaps the closest to once again luring people into a single vision of the Internet – from Google search and YouTube to Gmail and Android phones.

To keep people in the Google way of life, the company constantly launches new services. In fact, Google has an official “20 percent” rule that asks every employee to spend “one day a week working on projects that aren’t necessarily in our job descriptions.”

These extracurricular experiments live at GoogleLabs.com, a self-described “playground” where anyone can try out the almost-finished projects. Recent alumni include Google Maps, Alerts, and its SMS text message directory service.

The current collection showcases 50-plus “bubbling test tubes.” There’s no guarantee that any will graduate to full Google status, but here are five projects that are worth donning a virtual lab coat to test for yourself.

1. Fast Flip

This news service pairs the speed of online journalism with the aesthetics of magazines.

Here’s the idea: When perusing a print newspaper, readers can maneuver through pages at their own pace, quickly skimming headlines for stories that pique their interest. Websites, however – encumbered by ads, videos, and images – can take a while to load even on the fastest broadband browsers. With Fast Flip, users can virtually leaf through headlines from top newspapers at a speedy pace – the best of print and online worlds combined, perhaps.

Google has partnered with dozens of publications, including the Monitor, and organized their articles by subject matter, source, and popularity.

In true Google fashion, the program picks up on an individual’s reading habits to customize selection.

Google shares its Fast Flip ad revenue with the news outlets. This Labs project certainly won’t save journalism on its own, but it is one more way for news companies to reach readers, and a fast way for news junkies to get the latest information.

2. Earth Engine

At the International Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico, last month, Google Labs launched Earth Engine. The new service compiles more than 25 years’ worth of satellite imagery and makes it available to scientists for monitoring and measuring environmental changes on a global scale.

“Scientific analysis can transform these images from a mere set of pixels into useful information,” according to the Official Google Blog, “such as the locations and extent of global forests, detecting how our forests are changing over time, directing resources for disaster response or water resource mapping.”

Although many Google Lab experiments are open to the public, full access to Earth Engine has only been extended to select partners – scientists, nongovernmental organizations, and universities that work with such data for a living.

Intrigued novices, however, can play with the maps and data sets that have already been created by these groups by going to the Google Labs website.

3. Scribe

Many cellphones offer T9, predictive-text software that automatically completes half-typed words. The feature is a favorite among hyperefficient text-messagers, and those who are just plain lazy.

Scribe is T9 for computers. With each keystroke, the “text completion service” offers to finish the word for you – in English, Spanish, or Arabic.

Scribe won’t always guess correctly, especially with unusual words. But it can be very handy with simple sentences. For example, write “To W” and the program will suggest “…hom It May Concern,” potentially saving you from having to type 18 more characters.

4. Follow Finder

Back in April, Google Labs announced Follow Finder, a tool that “analyzes public social graph information” to help Twitter users find more people worth following.

Enter your Twitter name and the service will generate a list of “Tweeps” – members who follow the same people as you. It also finds people with the same followers as you.

“For example, if you follow CNN and The New York Times on Twitter, and most people who follow CNN and The New York Times also tend to follow TIME, we’ll suggest TIME as a user to follow,” Google explains.

Follow Finder can be a powerful tool, but it seems very similar to Twitter’s own “more like” feature. If you have suggestions on how to improve or differentiate Google’s version, let them know. After all, the whole point of Labs is to try out new Google prototypes and provide feedback.

5. App Inventor for Android

This do-it-yourself App Inventor lets anyone create mobile applications for Android phones, regardless of his or her programming know-how.

Instead of writing code, users design apps visually and add prewritten code prepared by Google’s team.

App Inventor can create games, ranging from basic drawing apps to motion-sensitive ball-and-maze puzzles. The Lab website describes how you can use text-to-speech capabilities, GPS-location sensors, and storage databases to build apps that will communicate with websites, automatically text friends when you’re busy driving, or even “help you remember where you parked your car.”

Before opening the project to the public in July, Google tested the App Inventor in classrooms across the United States. Google touts it as a powerful tool for educators, a simple way to expose students to computer programming, and a means for encouraging “creators of technology rather than just consumers of technology.”

Go to GoogleLabs.com for the full list of experiments.

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