Best of Google Labs: A Retrospective

As Google shuts down Google Labs, we look back at the many innovations the effort brought us, including Gmail, Google Goggles, Google Earth, and Google Maps, among others.

Best of Google Labs

After a long run full of successes and failures, Google announced on Wednesday that it will axe its Labs. Google Labs was a place where the company's employees were encouraged to release early-stage projects that they developed under Google's policy of allowing the use of up to 20 percent of a work week for innovation.

We rounded up a few notable Google products that either had humble beginnings in the Labs initiative or are currently still a part of Labs. Let's start with Gmail.

Read: Losing Google Labs Is the Price for a More Focused Google


Gmail, Google's hugely successful webmail service, started as a Google Labs project in 2004. The service now has its own experimental project service, Gmail Labs, which appears to be safe from the larger Labs cut.

The service is now used by millions of people and is even getting a Google+ style makeover as part of a Google-wide effort to unify its user experience.

Google Goggles

Google's Augmented Reality app for Android and iOS got its start in Google Labs. Goggles lets users search on Google using a photo from a smartphone instead of typing a search term. Snapping a photo in the app will return information on books, landmarks, artwork, products, barcodes, and more. Although it has its limits, this app has a lot of potential.

Take PCWorld's Hands-On Tour of Google Goggles.

Google Maps

Remember MapQuest? Neither do I. Google's mapping service, introduced in 2005, is clean and simple, and provides users with directions, place information, street views, and satellite photography. It broke out of Labs, turned into the go-to map website, and beat MapQuest and Bing Maps in a 2010 PCWorld face-off review.

Google Reader

Google's RSS reader, cleverly named Google Reader, made it easy for users to subscribe to news feeds when it was introduced in 2005. The free Web-based service eventually turned into an Android App that allows users to access their subscriptions on the go, while staying synced to your Web-based Reader account.

Google Body Browser

Google launched "Body Browser" in Google Labs in December 2010. The HTML5 website allows users to explore the human body in three dimensions. A slider on the left lets users choose whether they want to view skin, muscle, bones, or various other systems based on depth. Although the service is a little clunky, it's informative.

Google Earth

How could we talk about hits from Google Labs and neglect to mention Google Earth? This stand-alone software for Windows, OS X, and Linux allows users to explore imaging data seen in Google Maps, but in three dimensions. It's a great way to look for strange sights and mysteries.

Google Sky

Google combined Google Maps technology with astronomical data to make a way for users to explore the universe. Google Sky debuted in 2007 and covered 100 million stars and 200 million galaxies.

The service was later packaged into another Lab project, Sky Map for Android. That app uses a smartphone's internals to take things to a whole different level. Here's Google's description of the app: "Point your phone at the sky, and Google Sky Map will show the stars, planets, constellations, and more to help you identify the celestial objects in view." .

The image here is of the Cigar Galaxy (Messier 82) observed in the x-ray, optical, and near-infrared using NASA's space-based telescopes.

Google Mars

Google Mars is like Google Maps, except this time Google teamed with NASA researchers at Arizona State University to allow users to navigate the Red Planet.

Google Instant

Google introduced Instant in September 2010. The service displays search results as a user types a search query, and updates the results as the user types. Google hoped the service would help save its users a few seconds during the search process. The service later was extended to mobile phones running Android 2.2 and iOS 4.0.

Although a few people had issues with the service when it first came out, Google's Instant technology is definitely impressive and is a core part of the overall Google experience today.

Google Translate

Google Translate, a translation tool for webpages and text, offers support for 57 different languages. The service is also available in app form.

Translate also now offers an early-stage "Conversation Mode" that works only between English and Spanish. It translates your words and then reads them aloud.

Google Trends

Google Trends lets you see how often a topic has been searched on Google over time, how often it shows up in Google News, and in what geographic regions it is searched for the most. The tool can be used to compare up to five topics and gives pretty good insight into the world of Google searches.

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors