Just for Fun: The Stuff of Novels

We’ve all heard of Google.

But have you heard of Google X?

Google X is Google’s somewhat secret research facility, a la Q Branch of Ian Fleming’s 007 spy novel fame, which has as its mission the improvement of non-Google-core technologies by a factor of 10.

Notable projects, a few of which have seen the light of day but many of which have not, include Google’s self-driving car, Google Glass, a space elevator, a hoverboard, a jetpack and teleportation.

But while Q was a grandfatherly English gentleman with a penchant for tweed jackets and dangerous gadgets, Google X has been accused of engaging in more S.P.E.C.T.R.E. like acts . . . like patent infringement.

Engineered Architecture, or EA, for Short

In a lawsuit filed this past December, Israeli-born architect Eli Attia has accused Google and its co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page of stealing his invention: a technology that revolutionizes the design and construction process for large-scale buildings which Google itself has allegedly estimated has the potential of generating revenues of $120 billion annually. That’s billions with a capital “B.”

Attia, considered one of the world’s leading experts in skyscraper design, claims that he developed a new method of design and construction that integrates architecture, engineering, construction and maintenance, in what he has called “Engineered Architecture,” or “EA” for short, which basically takes a CAD drawing, figures out what parts need to be cut, and systematizes what is usually a lengthy process for quick assembly in the field. According to Attia, EA can save over 40% off the cost of designing and constructing a building. It is also, not surprisingly, patented.

Enter Google X

According to Israeli newspaper Globes, in the summer of 2010, Attia was invited by Google to present his technology to Goggle’s top brass including Larry Page. Several weeks later, Page and Sergey Brin asked Attia if he would be willing to work with Google on further developing the technology as part of Google X. Attia agreed and, according to Globes, nondisclosure and employment agreements were signed making it clear that the IP and know-how were Attia’s.

Code named “Genie,” the project got underway in January 2011. As the project progressed, team members presented the technology to prominent members of the design and construction field. Mike Riddle, the inventor of AutoCAD, is said to have called the technology, “An amazing solution.”

However, in early December 2011, Nicholas Chim the head of the Google X team, allegedly told Attia that Genie was finished.

Except it wasn’t.

Exit Google X . . . Enter Vannevar Technology and Flux Factory

According to the lawsuit, Google, Page, Brin, and other Google executives secretly continued to develop Genie through a spin-off company called Vannevar Technology, Inc. using the same project members from Genie, and when Vannevar Technology was discovered (by Globes, nonetheless), another company was formed called Flux Factory, Inc.

And, indeed, there is a company called Flux Factory, Inc. with a website (you have to scroll down to the footer of the website to see the full company name), which has as its slogan “Reimagining building design for a more sustainable future,” has a “Jobs” page touting that “Solving hard problems is in our DNA (our project was born at Google [x]),” and identifies one of its co-founders as none other than Nicholas Chim.

And, to add to the intrigue, there apparently is (or was) a company called Vannevar Technology whose one and only Tweet was “We will no longer be tweeting here. Please join us at @flux_io !” which is the same Twitter account for Flux Factory.

But what Flux Factory does or more importantly will do, and whether it infringes on Attia’s patent, is hard to say. According to an interview with a+u Data-Driven Cities posted on the Flux Factory website, Chim describes Flux Factory’s work a follows:

We began our exploration with the premise that buildings and the sustainability of our modern lifestyle are deeply intertwined. In addition, buildings – more specifically, housing – is an issue of human dignity. We wanted to find ways to apply Google-scale thinking to tackle these important issues. We started with nearly a blank slate, literally because the software engineers on the team had no prior background in architecture or construction, then engaged thought leaders, interviewed practitioners, built prototypes, and tested our thinking with a broad cross section of industry. Through this process, we discovered a strong desire to address the industry’s challenges, yet practitioners are caught in the realities of today’s business relationships, legal structures, risk tolerance, and design tools. To break this cycle, we are focusing our efforts on improving collaboration during planning and early design, enabling data-driven decision making, reducing information latency, and building knowledge communities.

Does this sound like EA? I don’t know. In fact, since it’s in technology start-up speak, I’m not quite sure what it says. But according to that same interview, the work Chim just described (whatever it is) is more a work in progress than anything else, and Flux Factory first product is actually a product called “Flux Metro” which doesn’t sound like EA at all:

Our first product will be Flux Metro. Its immediate utility (as of this interview) is limited to Austin, Texas, but it’s an experiment. . . . We needed to create a 3D experience where [real estate developers, land-use specialists and architects] visualize and comprehend the amalgamated data [of a project site]. Furthermore, we needed to show the cityscape not only as it is today, but as it might be as planned, so we painstakingly digitized Austin’s planning codes. Our product can interpret the spatial relationships that form the basis of zoning codes including district overlays, floodplains, distance from a specific street, parcel adjacencies, corner lots, and Austin-specific view corridors.

So, did Google, through Google X, through Vannevar Technology, and later through Flux Factory, steal Attia’s revolutionary idea? And is Attia’s patent what he says it is?

Well, as they say, the jury’s still out.

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