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Readers' guesses on Google Mystery Barge: TARDIS? Holodeck? Ark?

November 05, 2013|By Chris O'Brien

On Monday I wrote about my amateur sleuthing attempts to uncover the truth behind the Google Mystery Barge. (Spoiler alert: I failed. But did find some interesting clues.)

But one of the fun things about this story is pondering just what the heck Google is doing. Because with Google, there’s the feeling that it could be anything.

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Before I get to guesses that readers made, there’s one aspect that came up in the reporting, but that I didn’t discuss in the story. And that’s how the Google Mystery Barges (there’s a second one in Portland, Maine, in addition to the one in San Francisco Bay) seem to fit into a surprising nexus between Silicon Valley’s more eccentric minds and the sea.

For instance, Pay Pal co-founder and noted libertarian Peter Thiel has been funding a nonprofit called the Seasteading Institute. According to its website, the institute is “working to enable seasteading communities -- floating cities -- that will allow the next generation of pioneers to test new ideas for government. The most successful can then inspire change in governments around the world.”

Then there’s the Blueseed project, which aims to create a ship anchored 12 miles off the coast of Silicon Valley in international waters for entrepreneurs to have complete freedom from pesky U.S. regulators.

Finally, there’s Google co-founder Larry Page’s suggestion that the world should set aside an island where people could experiment with new forms of government, technology and lifestyles.

"We don’t want our world to change too fast," Page said recently. "But maybe we could set apart a piece of the world. ... I like going to Burning Man, for example. An environment where people can try new things. I think, as technologists, we should have some safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society. What's the effect on people, without having to deploy it to the whole world."

While reporting the Google Mystery Barge story, Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo noted these projects and wondered: "What is it about nerds and the sea?"

Saffo acknowledged his own fascination with this unlikely intersection between Silicon Valley and the water. And it’s one that goes back a couple of decades, thanks to another forgotten Bay Area mystery.

Back in the 1990s, another strange barge was anchored in the San Francisco Bay near Redwood City. It was the Hughes Mining Barge (as in Howard Hughes), which was originally built to recover a lost Soviet submarine.

This time, the HMB-1 had a cover placed over it to hide the U.S. Navy’s Sea Shadow, a $172-million prototype stealth ship. At the time, it prompted a similar round of intrigue and curiosity that the region is seeing with the Google Mystery Barge.

And that’s all part of the fun. It seems increasingly likely that the barge, originally thought to possibly be a floating data center, is more likely to be a floating showroom to demonstrate Google products and to entertain VIP clients.  

Still, that didn’t stop readers from indulging in their own guessing games. Here are a few that readers offered up in tweets, comments and emails:

1. Something to do with Google’s Niantic Labs. This group within Google, which is a bit mysterious itself, has created some augmented reality and location-based games that have real-world components.

2. An ark. Because Google knows something the rest of us don’t.

3. Internment camps. "I'm guessing that these barges are being retrofitted as internment camps," wrote one reader.

(Let me stop to note that perhaps we've all been watching a bit too much post-apocalyptic fare. Granted, it's inescapable. But how about we all watch a few romantic comedies this weekend?)

4. A Star Trek Holodeck. Writes one reader: "Using many large screen TVs combined with Google glasses, one could artificially create about any environment they wanted using pictures and animation, and it would be true 3d by having layers of screens showing the back ground. You'd need a large building that could be rocked to simulate slope at times too."

5. Their very own Dr. Who TARDIS.

6. A Mulberry, which, according to Wikipedia, is “a portable temporary harbour developed by the British in World War II to facilitate rapid offloading of cargo onto the beaches during the Allied invasion of Normandy.” Gulp. Let’s hope not. Though I guess this could come in handy if, say, one was building a large Cylon army...

7. Saffo had two guesses: The "mother of all houseboats" or "water front housing for Google employees."

8. Part of the NSA spying infrastructure. Or, conversely, an attempt to evade those NSA data collection efforts.

9. The Borg Cube. (Actually, this was mine, but it was cut from the story because editors thought it was too obscure for most readers!)


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