Google is a company that prides itself on innovation and creativity, but some of its most interesting creations aren’t nearly as popular as you may think.
These seven platforms are brilliant tools that Google has created to make learning accessible, help people learn about their world, or to add a little fun to everyday tasks.
1. Google Sky
Google Sky is basically an extended version of Google Maps that allows users to explore outer space – the perfect tool for anyone who has ever wanted to be an astronaut or who loves stargazing but is never quite sure of what they’re seeing or how the universe is actually organized.
Google Sky can be used to explore the universe at large, the moon, or Mars (change your choice in the upper left hand corner). The image can display outer space using Infrared, Microwave, or Historical filters, and users can navigate freely from one celestial object to the next by zooming, panning, or searching. The historical filter features drawings of constellations and key stars and angles used for navigation.
To navigate their extraterrestrial adventures, users may choose to explore using preset tools (such as “solar system,” “constellations,” or “backyard astronomy” along the bottom of the screen) or can search for a specific star, planet, or area by using the search bar at the top of the page.
Google Arts and Culture (also known as the “Google Cultural Institute”) is one of the most incredible online resources for historical information currently available online.
This project is a huge collaboration between Google and museums and libraries across the world that enables people worldwide to access museums, artifacts, works of art, and world wonders from the comfort of their own home.
Google Arts and Culture offers a huge number of features. Many museums (including the palace of Versailles, the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments) offer the “Explore” feature, which allows users to guide themselves through many of the museums’ exhibits using nothing but their computers.
The platform also showcases many of its partner museums’ artifacts and works of art in high definition photographs. These resources can be accessed through the search bar, or by navigating through the different filters and organizational methods created by the website (e.g. “Art Movements,” or “Historical Figures,” as accessed through the side menu).
Google Arts and Culture also offers unique online exhibits called “Projects” curated by experts in the field that present artifacts and locations from across the world with an incredible amount of background and contextual information. These curated projects include in-depth discoveries of individual historical events, explorations of wider topical themes, and detailed coverage of stage performances happening across the world complete with video and high-resolution photographs.
Google Jigsaw is Google’s response to online security issues. This project is currently working simultaneously on a number of smaller initiatives designed to keep people aware of the cybersecurity threats that are currently present in the world, and to make the internet a safer place overall.
Jigsaw’s current projects include:
- Project Shield – This initiative works to protect websites at-risk of cyber-attack that may not have the financial resources to protect themselves from higher levels of security threats (such as human rights groups or independent news organizations). Project Shield offers at-risk webmasters free access to Google’s infrastructure, protecting them from hackers and allowing their important information to remain online and available without interruption.
- Investigative Dashboard – This project was created in response to the difficulty journalists face when trying to track data hidden in shell companies. The Investigative Dashboard offers over 300 databases of online business records, and makes it much easier for researchers to follow individuals or companies of interest.
- Digital Attack Map – Using this platform, Jigsaw is able to track and visually display cyber-attacks on businesses, newspapers, and charities currently happening across the world, where they originated from, and where they are targeted.
- Password Alert – This project is a Chrome extension created to protect the safety and security of reporters, activists, and human rights workers who are commonly targeted by phishing schemes intended to steal their passwords. The extension alerts these individuals any time they enter their Google password into a website that is not legitimate so that they are not negatively affected by the complications associated with a stolen password.
- Montage – Every time there is a conflict or world event, an enormous amount of video footage is uploaded to YouTube by eyewitnesses using their mobile devices. This footage is incredible valuable, but can also be nearly impossible for reporters and human rights workers to sort through and make sense of. Enter Montage, a project that aims to enable collaboration between individuals and organizations wading through this footage by providing tools for analyzing, identifying, and organizing this video.
Google News Lab offers an organized library of tools and education to journalists interested in improving the quality of their online reporting.
The News Lab includes tutorials and access to resources for journalists (but that can be used by anyone), separated into four different phases of the publishing process.
- Research: Journalists can access tutorials on: reverse image searching, Google’s Public Data Explorer, Google Trends, creating Google Consumer Surveys, following select Google Alerts, exploring the Google News Archive, verifying social media reports, and corroborating photo locations using Panoramio.
- Report: In this section of the News Lab journalists can learn how to use tools that add to the presentation and accuracy of their information, such as: Google My Maps, YouTube, Permissions for Google Data, and creating visual aids such as Google Crisis Maps or Fusion Tables.
- Distribute: The News Lab offers insight to journalists who are interested in publishing their work on Google News and using YouTube successfully.
- Optimize: These tutorials and tools focus on gauging engagement and targeting your online strategy to increase your audience reach and engagement.
This initiative is just plain fun – Build with Chrome melds Google Maps and LEGO to create a free building experience that fosters creativity and exploration.
On Build with Chrome, builders make use of virtual LEGO pieces to build characters, vehicles, 2D structures, and/or buildings anywhere in the world. build characters, vehicles, 2D structures, buildings, or other anywhere in the world.
If you’re someone who prefers to follow rules than figure things out on the fly, the program also offers a “Build Academy” that teaches you the ropes by putting you through a series of building challenges in different locations.
Once you’ve finished creating your masterpiece, you can share it with other users through social media or on the global map. By zooming in close enough, you can enter a LEGO version of street view that allows you to see your creations (or the creations of others) in 3D.
For many people Google Street View has become an invaluable part of any trip planning process, because of how helpful it is for orienting you to the real-world appearance of streets and buildings. Trek takes you one step further by providing you with historical information, sights, sounds, and guided tours of select locations.
As you walk through diverse historic sites such as the Taj Mahal, Venice, and the Kennedy Space Centre, you are completely immersed in your virtual surroundings. Instead of being limited to roads, Trek will take you from desert paths in Petra, Jordan to the arctic tundra of Iqaluit, Canada.
Each Trek varies in the information provided, but all of them provide some extra information (in the form of YouTube videos, links, or narratives) about the location to help you appreciate it more fully. While virtual travel will obviously never be as rich an experience as being somewhere in 3D, Google Trek makes a pretty good substitute if you’re limited in your travel opportunities.
7. Google Smarty Pins [No Longer Available]
Much like Build With Chrome, Google’s Smarty Pins feature is nothing but fun (with a little bit of education mixed in).
Smarty Pins uses the Google Maps interface as the background for a geography trivia challenge. Before beginning a game, you can choose a specific category that you are interested in, or you can have a random selection by pressing “Start a new game“.
The game asks you to identify different locations by dropping a marker based on cryptic hints. If you make an incorrect selection, the distance of the location you chose from the actual location (in kilometers) is subtracted from your starting bank of 1500km. If you run out of km in your bank, it’s game over.
So Much More than a Search Engine
It’s almost impossible to keep track of everything that Google is doing and the huge variety of projects that they have taken on. While there are certainly legitimate concerns with Google’s approach to privacy and Google’s monopoly of the search engine world, the innovation and invention driving all of Google’s side projects are doing incredible things.
While for some of us the projects above are nothing more than an interesting way to spend an afternoon, they can be invaluable for under-resourced classrooms studying far-away places, journalists and human rights workers concerned about their safety, or people who may otherwise never have a chance to see a Van Gogh in high resolution.
Have you used any of the products listed above or another oft-forgotten Google Product I didn’t mention? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!