While it didn't produce as many grand innovations as AT&T's famed Bell Labs, the Google Labs project will still be missed.
For the past several years, Google's self-described "playground" has served as a test site for many Web applications that are now considered a staple of the Google portfolio, including Gmail, Google Calendars, Google Scholar and Google Maps. But this week Google announced it would soon shut down Google Labs to focus its energies more on its core business functions. In tribute to this wild and wacky digital playground, we've gone back through some of the Labs' projects and looked for ideas that may not have set the world on fire but were cool nonetheless.
Google City Tours: Ever land in a brand-spanking new city without any clue of local attractions? Google designed its Maps-based City Tours app to be your personal guide by giving you a suggested walking route that will bring you to some of your areas most popular attractions. For instance, entering "One Financial Center, Boston, MA" into the engine will give you a walking map that will take you to Paul Revere's house, the Boston Children's Museum, Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the Boston Public Library and more.
Google Body: If you ever find yourself needing to perform emergency surgery but you don't have a medical degree... OK, so we don't recommend using Google Body to figure things out. But we do recommend using Google Body as a terrific resource to search every aspect of the human body, from the outer parts to your slimy (but rather vital) innards. The 3D body search program relies on a technology called WebGL that is used to produce interactive 3D renderings.
Google Image Swirl: While Google Images has been a functional image search engine, its layout is somewhat lacking in pizzazz in this day and age. Google Image Swirl takes the image search format to the next generation, creating a series of related circles around an image that display different aspects of the word you're searching for. For example, typing in "Picasso" will give you a circle filled with pictures of some of his most famous works. Clicking on one of the pictures will produce another circle around the picture filled with related pictures. The idea behind the project is to make it easier to find pictures that are more closely related to one another, and it certainly succeeds.
Google Gesture Search: Here's an Android app meant to make searching for contacts, applications and favorite web pages a snap. The premise is simple: Open up the Gesture app and draw a letter on the screen. The program will then produce a list of frequently-used apps, contacts or websites that start with that particular letter or that contain the letter. This is definitely a must-have for anyone whose phone contact list is overflowing with 10 different Sarahs and Steves.
Google Goggles: Unlike beer goggles, these will hopefully help make you smarter. Here's how it works: You use your camera to take pictures of famous landmarks, well-known paintings, business cards and a host of other things. You can then use Google Goggles augmented reality application to get information on the pictures you take. So if you're wondering what a certain landmark or painting is, you can use Google Goggles to match up your picture and find information about it on the Web. Our personal favorite feature is a restaurant menu translator where you take a picture of a non-English menu and let the Googles translate what your various food options are. Your days of being perplexed when you go out for dim sum are officially over!
Google Fast Flip: For news junkies who tire of plowing through their bookmarks looking for the latest headlines one at a time, Google has developed this nifty feature that culls front pages from several prominent news sites and arranges them as a sort of slideshow that you can scroll through. Once you find a front page that intrigues you, you can simply click on it to enlarge it and read the entire story. Like Google News, Fast Flip also has assorted sections for sports, business, technology, etc.
Aardvark: Remember Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all from the TV show "Cheers" who would dispense often-inaccurate information on a wide variety of topics? Well, Aardvark's goal is to be a more-accurate version of Cliff. The program scours its user database for experts on assorted fields and provides you with an answer to a specific question. So if you're looking for, say, a good place to see a ballgame and get some food while you're on a business trip in Chicago, you can ask Aardvark about good sports bars near the hotel you're staying at and they'll find some sports fan in Chicago who can give you tips. The process isn't speedy, however - we've been waiting all day to hear about good places to find craft beer in Pittsburgh.