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Floating some theories about Google's mysterious barge

Google isn't talking about its vessel with a huge stack of shipping containers. A reporter's sleuthing turns up more questions than answers: Is it a teleportation device or a time travel machine?

November 03, 2013|By Chris O'Brien
  • Two men fish in the water in front of a barge on Treasure Island in San Francisco. The barge has sparked online speculation.
Two men fish in the water in front of a barge on Treasure Island in San Francisco.… (Jeff Chiu )

If it weren't for Google trying to cover it up, the old sea-worn barge stacked four stories high with customized shipping containers may not have become an object of global fascination.

But Google being Google with all its out-there projects — many ripped from the pages of sci-fi bestsellers — the secrecy behind the barge has taken on a life of its own. Google isn't saying anything, and having guards shoo away prying eyes has only added to the mystery.

Since the barge was discovered 10 days ago, my imagination has raced through mind-blowing possibilities. What could be next for a company funding projects to end death, build robotic cars and take the Internet to outer space? A teleportation device? A time travel machine? The world's largest Easy Bake Oven to make 8-foot-high cupcakes?

Or perhaps it's just an epic marketing prank to get us all talking about Google.

"This is like catnip for conspiracy theorists and nerds," said Paul Saffo, a consulting professor of engineering at Stanford University and a Silicon Valley technology forecaster.

The barge became my Area 51, the secretive military base in Nevada that every amateur sleuth has tried to uncover. Piercing Google's defensive shields was going to be tough, but I was undeterred. I picked up my notebook and camera and set off from my home in Oakland to find the truth.


To get there, I drive west across the gleaming new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which just recently opened. At about the halfway point to San Francisco, just before the thoroughfare enters a tunnel, I turn off the exit for Yerba Buena Island onto a road that swirls around the island before taking me north to my destination.

That road connects to Treasure Island, a man-made no-man's land trapped in limbo between its past as a U.S. naval station and its destiny as a proposed business and residential development with million-dollar views of the city.

Treasure Island, which is less than 1 square mile, was created in 1937 by dredging the bottom of the bay when boosters wanted a place to stage the massive Golden Gate International Exhibition.

By 1942, the U.S. Navy had seized the island for wartime use, and many of the Art Deco buildings created for the exhibition were demolished to make room for barracks. Today, the island is in transition.

After driving past the decaying wooden barracks that give it a ghost-town feel and making a few stops to ask questions, I eventually make my way to the southeast corner of the island to Pier 1, where the barge is anchored.

The entrance to the pier is secured by two wooden guard stations. A guard politely declines my request to venture out for a closer look. The structure on the barge remains partially wrapped by a white covering. Two workers are installing a chain-link gate topped with barbed wire to keep the curious out.

I turn around and face Hangar 3, which is about a football field away, separated from the pier by the street and a large parking lot that has also served as a helicopter landing pad. This 67,000-square-foot warehouse is where the structure was built, though there is little activity on this day.

A CNN truck sits in the parking lot. As I walk to the hangar, I bump into a reporter from the British newspaper the Daily Mail. I joke that we should hire a boat to get a closer look. He says he's actually thinking about doing so. (Which he does the next day.)

We approach the hangar, where signs warn "Danger: Do not enter" and "Please prepare to surrender your smart phone, camera phone, camera, and or any other audio/visual devices."

The hangar door opens and a flatbed truck slips inside before the door quickly shuts.

We then walk around the building to Hangar 2, home of a company called Island Creative Management, which produces large-scale tech events and conventions. The warehouse, formerly a movie soundstage, is stuffed with odd props such as a rocket ship and a sign.

A friendly employee tells me the owners had signed a nondisclosure agreement to not discuss their neighbor's project.

We go back to Hangar 3 and circle it again before crossing the street to Yerba Buena Builders, a construction company, where we meet Keith Miller.

Miller smiles as I approach, clearly amused by the buzz of media interest since CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman broke the story. His story speculated that it might be a floating data center, based on patents Google had received for using seawater to cool such a thing.

But if the project were a secret, it was hidden in plain sight, Miller says.

For months, TV news crews parked along the street as they did stories about the new Bay Bridge construction. Miller was tickled that they never seemed to point the cameras in the other direction and wonder about the activity taking place in and around Hangar 3.

"I thought there must be a media blackout or something," he says.

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