My week with Google

by Andrew “Alf” Leahy

Unlike academics, professional staff at universities don’t often have the opportunity to visit and work with colleagues overseas. Perhaps someone reading can explain why? This has been my second working trip and all I can say is MAKE IT HAPPEN!! You will come back with new ideas and expertise, new networks and increased confidence in your own role & abilities.

Quick Background Liquid Galaxy started as a 20% project of Google engineers Jason Holt and Dan Barcay as a way to quickly check and visually demonstrate the Google Street View imagery. The project was extended to include Google Earth, enabling Earth to be configured on multiple PC’s in an immersive fashion. I’ve worked on similar technology in the past and immediately jumped on the project when it was made public in late 2010. I’ve been working, mostly in my own 20% time :) with the primary goal of using it as a tool for compelling visualisation of our research data. Along the way I’ve built a few systems using resources graciously supplied by the School of Computing & Mathematics. At UWS the project is called Wonderama mainly because we have a broad range of uses in addition to running Google content.

On the back of my involvement with Liquid Galaxy I was invited to spend the last week of June as a guest of Google at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California and at the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco. There were multiple purposes to the visit: to meet face-to-face with the other developers; lend a hand during the setup of a new Liquid Galaxy for the conference; be available to chat with other developers about Liquid Galaxy; and to generally share ideas and immerse ourselves in things Liquid Galaxy!

I arrived Saturday June 23 at San Francisco Airport to be greeted by my sponsor and Google engineer Jason Holt. Andreu Ibanez, a fellow Liquid Galaxy builder from Lleida Spain arrived an hour later. Jason and his family very graciously put us up at their home in Mountain View. We had the option to stay at a hotel, but I knew that wouldn’t be as much fun! That afternoon Jason gave Andreu and I a personal tour of the Google campus, which included a couple of the Liquid Galaxy rigs. My first time with the real deal. This was a good way to get any Google ‘fanboi’ sight-seeing out of our systems!


On Sunday we went on a tour of some of the community “maker” spaces that I particularly wanted to see while I was in the Valley. These included Google’s Workshops, The Hacker Dojo, BioCurious, Sawdust Shop and TechShop. Along the way we also visited The Computer History Museum and the NASA AMES Exploration Center, ending up at Stanford Campus and dinner in Stanford. An amazing day experiencing technologies at all different scales.

Monday when we arrived we were met by a throng of new employee’s (affectionately known as Nooglers) queuing for security passes and waiting to be inducted. Ducking around a few corridors Jason led us to his new supersized cockpit-design Liquid Galaxy, with 80inch screens, just wow! The End Point guys were already there and keen to start dismantling (from End Point we had Ben, Matt, Kiel and Zed). Like Andreu, these were Liquid Galaxy folk I’d interacted with via email, Skype and in Hangouts over the last 18 months. Handshakes over we began loading up for the move to Moscone convention center. Once the truck was loaded we had time for a Liquid Galaxy state-of-the-nation meeting over lunch at a Google Cafe (the food’s all free you know!). Then off to San Francisco to check out Moscone Center and start the re-building. Here we met Shane who was responsible for the machining and construction of a new rig frame which was due to arrive from Tennessee. However by Monday afternoon it seemed that the shipping company had misplaced the truck! So a few of us headed back to Mountain View to dismantle and load the old frame onto another truck to be delivered to Moscone that evening. We finished the day at the Google Store to pick up some schwag, and dinner with Google crew at one of their renowned cafeteria’s until we were the last people there!

Tuesday Andreu and I checked into our hotel in San Francisco and made our way two blocks over to Moscone. The day was spent putting final touches on the Liquid Galaxy, preparing tours of the amazing new Earth 3D Imagery, and registering for the conference. Here is a video of the build in process courtesy of Andreu. I had the opportunity to setup our UWS-built Kinect control for Liquid Galaxy and the team and some other exhibitors got to have a play. We returned to our hotel about 2am! The new frame was still AWOL.

Wednesday was Day 1 of Google I/O. 6000 conference attendee’s all in one Keynote hall was pretty awesome, it included sky divers!! I spent most of the day shmoozing with visitors to the Google Maps Sandbox where the Liquid Galaxy rig was located. I met lot’s of great people including fellow Aussies from Atlassian and Telstra. At lunch we heard from a relieved Shane that the new rig frame had finally turned up from Tennessee, hurrah. But this was going to be another late night! The Google I/O After Hours dinner & party ran until 10pm at Moscone. While we waited I set up the Kinect controller again and we gave passers-by a chance to ‘surf the planet’ Liquid Galaxy-style. After everyone else was kicked out we dismantled and rebuilt the rig onto the new frame. I left in the early hours so I would be in a reasonable state to talk with people bright and early on Thursday. Matt & Kiel didn’t finish until daylight.

Thursday Day 2 of Google I/O and a brand-new Liquid Galaxy rig to wow people! Check out a great video of the system with Peter Birch here. Peter personally thanked us all, “You guys make us look good!”.
Another great big Keynote from Google and I went back shmoozing err I mean networking. Here’s video proof! I did force myself to attend the Google Compute Engine technical session that was announced that morning. One great thing about Google I/O is that pretty much all the sessions are available online, either streamed live or a few days after. This evening all the Developer Sandbox areas were cleared away so we dismantled and packed the rig for shipping back to the Google in Mountain View the next morning. Unfortunately being distracted packing I completely missed the Google I/O Ignite Sessions which I’d hoped to catch live. David Weekly from The Hacker DoJo gave a 5 minute Ignite talk at I/O.

Friday morning after Andreu and I confounded Starbucks counter staff with our accents, we traveled with the End Point crew to Mountain View and re-assembled the rig at the Googleplex. Followed by lunch in a Google cafeteria (did I mention the food is fantastic and free?), a meeting with a Google Earth PM about future Liquid Galaxy projects. Late afternoon we finally said goodbye to our Googler hosts, and I headed back with the End Point crew and Andreu smack into the San Francisco’s Friday evening rush hour *doh*. Leaving us with just enough time for a walk to China Town and a sunset dinner with a view of Coit Tower.

The last two days I managed some touristy things – walked The Embarcadero and pier markets, lunch at Fishermans Wharf, picked up a Zip Car, over to Lombard St and across the Golden Gate which was completely obscured by fog! Dropped into picturesque Sausalito, continued around the Bay to visit the UC Berkeley Campus and the across the Bay Bridge back to the city. Sunday more R&R, including a walk over to South Beach to watch the Spain v Italy UEFA Cup Final with a bunch of excitable Spaniards, Spain winning 4:nil! A pleasant walk up thru China Town and finally off to the airport for the 14h flight home to Sydney.

And then it was over. Way too soon! :-(

Highlights: Meeting and working with Jason, Ben, Kiel, Matt and Andreu shoulder-to-shoulder! Spending time with Googlers in their ‘natural habitat’. Talking a helluva a lot about Liquid Galaxy. Networking and connecting with dozens of people & projects and bringing them back to UWS, including: Ben @Harvard World Map project, Electronic Arts HTML5 gaming guys, Michael @Ubilabs, European OpenData vis projects, Dave @Keyhole founder, Steven @Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis UCL, Square Enix immersive gaming, Cara @NASA AMES Outreach, Peter-Haris-Mano @Google Maps & Earth, Jenifer @Google Oceans, Piotr @Google Art Project, Tanya @Google for Good, etc. etc.

PS. My trip mobile trail with placemarks courtesy of Google Latitude for loading into Google Earth.