How Google Pulled Off Their Live Video Skydiving With Glasses Demo

Google won the Internet by pulling off a truly impressive Google Glass skydiving stunt, twice, during their I/O event. Skydivers in wingsuits 4,000 feet above San Francisco delivered the high tech glasses to the Moscone stage in just four minutes, with help of 25 cameras, a zeppelin and a helicopter, stunt bikers and someone rappelling down the side of the convention center.

The whole thing was shown on live video in a Google Hangout from the skydivers’ and bikers’ glasses to the surprise of developers in the audience and those watching on YouTube. This was Google’s winning answer to Steve Jobs’ “One More Thing” and for the moment, it made Apple’s ground-based surprises seem less dramatic.

Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin began the demo saying “This can go wrong in 500 different ways, so tell me: Who Wants to see a demo of Glass?” Despite the many ways it could go wrong, it didn’t. How in the world did Google do it?

Google tells TechCrunch the idea was hatched 6 weeks ago. They wanted to come up with a compelling way to show off and test the limits of the Glass technology. When initial discussions about the idea started, everyone thought it was a joke. But soon, a group of Ph.D’s and computer scientists had turned this secret plan into their full-time job.

One of the first tasks was to find a group of the best skydivers and athletes in the world. They hooked up with JT, the lead jumper. After the jump the skydivers were blown away by the experience. One said the ability to do a live Hangout with their parents would go a long way to showing how safe skydiving can be under the right circumstances.

Google enlisted a whole bunch of help from the government to make it happen. They had cooperation from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office, and the San Francisco Police and Fire Departments and NASA Ames in Mountain View. They also worked with FAA offices in Oakland, San Jose, and Washington.

The FAA issued a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) #06/083 with a warning that a parachute jumping exercise could be taking place over San Francisco on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning.

The airspace 4,000 feet over SF is classified as Class B airspace. Pilots need permission to fly there, but such clearance is easily and routinely obtained by talking to air traffic control.

One legal hurdle they had to clear was that zeppelin airships are not allowed to open a door in flight. But, they were able to work with the San Jose FAA branch to add new rules to the operation manual for zeppelins so they could open the door and jump. As a result, Google says the jumps were the first ever legal zeppelin skydives using wingsuits in the U.S. (I’m guessing there haven’t been any illegal ones either).

Google got some help from Mother Nature. While there were some clouds rolling into the city, they stayed away from the downtown area. The skydivers need to be able to see where they are landing. On Thursday, Brin joked that maybe Google Glass would one day allow for skydivers to fly under instrument flying conditions, where pilots can fly in the clouds.

One big technology hurdle was connectivity, which was needed to get the live video signal. It’s not easy to get Internet bandwidth for a skydive nearly a mile up in the air. It’s too high for cell coverage and regular WiFi isn’t reliable enough. Google says their team tried several approaches. They tested using a wok (that’s not the name of a special antenna, they are talking about the cooking tool) with a mifi 4G LTE hotspot connected to it. But that wasn’t used during the live demo. Google hasn’t revealed what their solution was, but they say it was very much cheaper than high-end professional equipment.

Another problem was the optics. Google Glass wasn’t designed for handling the sun when flying thru the air. The Google team tried a number of approaches to improve the images including taping over the glass piece and developing a special filter. When they did the actual jump, two jumpers used the Google-powered solutions while others used more expensive equipment.

To get all the shots, Google used 25 cameras. The demo athletes used 11 Glass prototype devices and Brin also wore one. There were also 10 manned cameras used to capture the athletes and all the various stages of the process. And there were 3 additional cameras inside the main hall. Cameras were used from the zeppelin they jumped out of and a helicopter circling overhead.

If you haven’t seen it, check it out: