Inside Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group

Using the playbook she brought from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Regina Dugan drives rapid technology innovation at Google’s ATAP group.

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Passe passwords

Dugan’s notorious ire over password authentication also has become the object of ATAP’s attention in a project called Abacus. ATAP recruited 25 experts from 16 institutions in 10 countries to collaborate on signing-in or authenticating without passwords at Google’s Mountain View facility during a 90-day design session.  Applying machine learning, the collaborators built an app that vouches for the identity of the user based on a multimodal assessment of his or her behavior.

By enlisting such smartphone sensors as the camera and accelerometer, ATAP replaces passwords by collecting data about the users’ unique patterns of behavior while typing, talking, changing facial expressions and walking. The combination of this data can uniquely identify the user carrying and interacting with a smartphone almost like a baby identifies its mother by the way she carries and interacts with her infant.

google atap project abacus results

Click to enlarge.

Individually these patterns may be a weaker security defense than a simple four-digit pin code, but combined they’re stronger than the best fingerprint reader. Dugan declared success in her war against the password, saying “the result, proof of the hypothesis – a new method of authentication that may prove to be 10-fold more secure than the best fingerprint sensors. The hope is that with only a software update we can provide this level of security to millions of Android devices.”

Fast and furious technology breakthroughs

Google also delivered its fourth Spotlight Story filmed as a 360-degree immersive movie. The movie can be watched from a spectator’s multi-angle vantage point in the middle of the movie set using a smartphone and earbuds. Google partnered with Justin Lin, director of the “Fast and Furious” movie franchise and the upcoming “Star Trek III” to film a 360-degree action movie. Titled “Help,” the film’s about an extraterrestrial reptile that lands on earth and grows in size from baby to velociraptor to a Godzilla-sized monster terrorizing a Gotham-like city amidst special effects.

The movie-goer watches the movie from any of 360 degrees – up, down, right, left, front and back – seeing the movie through the window of his or her smartphone as if he or she were in the middle of the scene. Instead of trying to explain the 360-degree movie experience with mere words, downloading the Spotlight player and movies from Google Play or iTunes will result in a richer experience and first-hand understanding of ATAP and Lee’s movie.

The creation of a 360-degree action movie demanded a partnership between a creative movie director, who could express the camera equipment he needed, and ATAP, who could swiftly build this equipment. ATAP technical project lead Rachid El Guerrab’s account of director Lee’s needs and the solution that he designed gives insight into just one dimension of creating a 360-degree movie, the camera. But the solution built for Lee by ATAP is much bigger and more complex, including a directional audio system that follows the observer’s position, management tools to help the director visualize and plan the video shoot, and integration with digital effects authoring tools so the virtual velociraptor can be merged into the scene with the human actors.  

Guerrab’s describes Lee’s technical requirements in this 81-second video:

ATAP boldly goes where no man has gone before

ATAP’s developments all address strategic opportunities or risks for Google. Wearable technologies will become a large market that IDC estimates will amount to 126 million units in 2019. Obstacles to how users interact with wearables limit their usefulness. Commercial development of ATAP’s radar motion detector of woven multi-touch interface could give Google a strategic wearable advantage in the same way that Android does, even though Google gives the technology away.

Passwords are another strategic issue for Google. Android mobile devices need strong authentication. Project Abacus could be a strategic response to Apple’s fingerprint reader. And it’s a key component of all of Google’s apps. With increasing frequency, people use Google, Facebook and Twitter to register and login to websites. If Project Abacus proves Google’s authentication is stronger and safer, consumers will choose it over the alternatives.

Google’s interest in 3D and virtual reality anticipate new ways of interacting with internet content. Google Ventures invested over $500 million in virtual reality startup Magic Leap, a company that aims to merge virtual and real worlds. Virtual reality has reached mainstream attention and appears to be ready to grow and generate serious revenue. 360-degree Spotlight video engineering is a precursor to creating virtual reality content on a massive scale and consumption en masse.  It prepares Google with first-hand experience that it can use to lead its strategy and investment in this emerging market.

And it’ll be just one more feasibility-to-reality success for the Dugan’s ATAP wizards.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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