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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

In the San Francisco Bay, a Mysterious Google Barge

There is a mysterious barge floating in San Francisco Bay with Google's fingerprints all over it. The question is what Google wants to do with it, and Google won't say.

The barge is being operated by Google, according to a person with knowledge of it who would speak only anonymously because the project is secret. But few other details are known. Google declined to comment.

The barge has generated intense interest in the city. First, there was speculation that it was a floating data center, based on shoe-leather reporting by Cnet, a past Google patent for a floating data center and theories about water as a cooling source.

Over the weekend, a report by KPIX, CBS's Bay Area affiliate, said the barge could be a floating store to sell Google Glass, the Internet-connected eye wear. According to this theory, the company reportedly wants to move the store from port to port, anchoring it near cities. A similar barge has been spotted in the harbor at Portland, Me.

What is known for sure is that Google is increasing production and sales of the consumer version of Glass, which will be broadly available next year, according to the company. On Monday, it said that the people who had been chosen to buy a test device could invite three people to sign up, too. The company also said its latest version of Glass would be compatible with prescription lenses.

Google has said it wants to sell Glass in an unusual and personalized way - and with a nice view.

The early buyers of Glass - a select group known as Explorers who paid $1,500 - have been required to pick up the device in-person at scenic locations, where Google employees devote an hour to showing customers how Glass functions and answering questions.

Some people, for instance, arrived at a swanky San Francisco hotel bar, where they were given a drink and whisked away to a penthouse suite with outdoor balconies and sweeping views of the city, which they were encouraged to photograph with Glass. In New York, customers had a similar experience on the top floor of Chelsea Market.

Google has been searching for a way to expand that type of experience when it sells the consumer version of Glass next year, Kelly Liang, the director of business development for Glass, said in an interview last summer. (Still, Google does not plan to sell Glass only in-person. It announced Monday that new customers of Glass could for the first time order it online, to be shipped to their homes.)

“The worst place to demo Glass is in a conference room,” Ms. Liang said. “Glass is all about being out there, having fun, being active.”

“It's a very important principle that we want customers' first experience with Glass to be amazing, it needs to really delight them,” she added.

Could that describe a floating store?

That remains to be seen. But as Google prepares to sell more hardware, including Glass, it has hired more retail executives, including recruiting some from rival tech companies with big retail presences, according to people with knowledge of Google's recent personnel moves. (And Warby Parker - the eye wear company that Google has turned to before for ideas - has shown the success of a traveling eyeglass store with its school bus that traverses the country.)

Already, Google has experimented with selling Glass on San Francisco Bay. When a Glass Explorer arrived at a location to pick up the device last summer, the person was transported on a four-hour shopping adventure that felt more like a James Bond movie than a retail experience.

“I showed up at the pickup location and we were shuffled into a boat and the zipped across the Bay to this huge airplane hanger where there were tons of Google employees handing out champagne and letting us try on different colors of Google Glass,” said the person, who would only speak anonymously.

Nick Bilton and Nick Wingfield contributed reporting.