Google has opened a research and development centre at its Tokyo offices.

The centre's role in Google's global R&D network is yet to be defined by the people who are hired to work there. Howard Gobioff, the centre's engineering director and principal engineer, said the first job is to recruit team members.

Engineers accepted by Google can look forward to working on both company-assigned projects and in areas of their choosing under a system that encourages engineers to spend up to 20 per cent of their time pursuing projects of interest to them. The projects don't need to be approved by the company but Google asks that they are in some way relevant to its business.

Several Google services began their life as such projects, including Google News and the Orkut personal networking site, and the company's engineers have ideas for new projects.

"I'm really interested in astronomy," said Rob Pike, one of the company's software engineers. He said there are some great Web-based databases of astronomical information but that none of them do a great job of presenting the information. He said he would like to see a service that pulls all of the information together and presents it in a useful and easy to access form. "Something like a Google Sky," he said.

Google doesn't have a set number of engineers it is looking to hire for the Tokyo centre and this will depend largely on the quality of people who apply, Gobioff said. The company is looking for "really smart people" who have an interest in building things, are flexible and want to take on new problems in new domains, he said.

"We feel it's important to bring all the information in the world and make it available to everyone in a very democratic way," said Wayne Rosing, senior vice president of engineering at Google, speaking at an event to mark the opening.

"Our goal is to have Google support in all of the large, linguistic and cultural groups in the world. Eventually we wish to have Google in 30 or 40 or even 50 of the largest language groups with very, very high quality support. Part of that effort is to open engineering centres in a number of places in the world."

Google has similar centres in the US, Switzerland and India.