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Know how Google did its Glasses Skydiving Stunt

Jul 1, 2012

Sergey Brin on the stage in his Google Glasses with Ironman 
Tony Stark
Sergey Brin in his Google Glasses with Ironman Tony Stark.

The Google Glass demo will go down in history as one of the most elaborate product launches. Sergey Brin’s video featured two skydivers jump out of a blimp over San Francisco wearing the Google Glass headwear. The video was streamlined directly to the Moscone Center—housing the annual Google  I/O—using Google+’s Hangout feature, which allows several parties to access and participate in a live real-time videoconference. Brin said while onstage, “This is one of the things we’ve been experimenting with Glass, the ability to really share. We’ve shown photos but this is something we haven’t tried.”

Sergey Brin gave the play-by-play as a troop of skydivers, bikers, and rope rappelers converged on the Moscone convention center, in a scene that could have been the opening sequence of a "Mission Impossible" movie.

The skydivers made jumping out of an airship look easy. But before they could do it, Google had some challenges to overcome, not the least of which was how to get a good Internet connection at 4,000 feet.
Not only was it the first time skydivers using wing-suits got permission to jump out of a zeppelin airship in the U.S., but the feat posed some odd technical problems that Google engineers solved after a MacGyver moment or two.

For instance, the Glasses weren't designed to be worn by someone falling through the air at 200 miles an hour in bright sunlight. In early testing on the ground, engineers worried that the glare from the sun would interfere with the devices, according to Google. At one point, they applied electrical tape to the lenses to serve as a sort of filter. Eventually, they came up with a better solution -- they applied photochromic film to the lenses.
An even bigger problem to figure out was how to get the live video feed of what the skydivers were seeing through the Glasses and out to the Internet. This is not a simple feat in a city where cell phone reception itself can be spotty on the streets below.

How's this for ingenuity? Early on in the project, the team grabbed a Wok--yes, the kind for sauteing vegetables--and tried to use it as a broadcast dish. They attached a Nexus Galaxy smartphone to it and pointed it up at the sky. That initial idea was rejected in favor of more workable solutions, though Google hasn't shared the details yet.

But forget the technology. The question on many peoples' minds was who did the company have to bribe to get permission to carry out such a potentially dangerous and unprecedented stunt in downtown San Francisco? What started out as a joke at an early planning meeting about six weeks ago, ended up being the talk of the town and the highlight of the Google I/O developer conference this week. There was some red tape involved and costs for equipment and hiring the skydivers and the airship company, but apparently no money paid to officials.

The company got cooperation from NASA Ames, which is in Mountain View, Calif., practically the company's backyard, as well as from the San Francisco Mayor's Office. And, most importantly, it got all the necessary approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration, which set additional stringent requirements to allow the stunt over a populated area. For instance, there were requirements governing experience of jumpers, height for opening chutes, and communications between the ground and the pilot and the air traffic controller. "They had a thorough vetting," said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.

And what was it like to jump over San Francisco wearing such high-tech goggles? "It was pretty spectacular," Keri Bell, the only female among the skydivers, told the reporters. "It was like having rock star status, being part of such a huge event."

Here is the video of the Google Glass skydiving demo from Google I/O.