Google reorg moves AR, VR, Starline and Area 120 into new ‘Labs’ team

Google Labs is back, but this time around, it’s not a consumer-facing brand delivering a range of experimental products. Instead, it’s the internal name given to a new team at Google created under a reorganization that aims to gather the company’s many innovative projects and long-term bets under one roof. The new group will be led by Clay Bavor, a veteran Googler and VP whose most recent role has seen him leading the company’s forward-looking efforts in virtual and augmented reality, including its cutting-edge holographic videoconferencing project known as Project Starline.

Bavor will lead the new organization that will contain Google’s existing AR and VR efforts, its futuristic Starline, its in-house incubator called Area 120, as well as any other “high-potential, long-term” projects. He will report directly to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Launched in 2016, Area 120 was envisioned as a way to better retain entrepreneurial-minded talent at Google, while giving teams the ability to test out new ideas while still having access to Google’s data, products, and resources.

Over the years, the organization has cranked out a number of successful projects and exits, including the HTML5 gaming platform for emerging markets called GameSnacks, now integrated with Google Chrome in some countries; the technical interview platform Byteboard, a rare external spinout; an AirTable rival called Tables which exited to Google Cloud; an A.I.-powered conversational ads platform AdLingo, which also exited to Cloud; video platforms Tangi and Shoploop, which exited to Google Search and Shopping, respectively; and the web-based travel app Touring Bird, which exited to Commerce, among others.

Currently, Area 120 is incubating projects like the workplace video platform ThreadIt, spectrum marketplace Orion, document scanner Stack, and more. At any given time, it has around 20 projects underway, though not all of them are made public.

However, under the prior organizational structure, Area 120 was three layers deep in terms of reporting to Google CEO Sundar Pichai — even though Pichai himself had to sign off on its every exit. The group was also housed amid a potpourri of groups reporting to Don Harrison, President of Global Partnerships and Corporate Development. With the reorganization, Area 120 will be relocated alongside other innovative projects, potentially gaining the participating teams and their efforts increased visibility.

Though Google is only using the branding “Labs” internally to have something to call its new group, the name it selected has a rich history at the company. Hardly a boring choice, the “Google Labs” brand was associated in the past with Google’s public-facing experiments that often moved from beta into general availability.

During its run from 2002-2011, Google Labs produced products like Personalized Web Search, Google Web Alerts, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, Google Reader, Google Shopper (now Google Shopping), Aardvark (a Quora-like Q&A site), a Lens precursor called Google Goggles, Gesture Search for Android, iGoogle, Google Maps, Google Transit, Google Video, Google Talk, Google Trends, Google Scholar, Google Code Search, Google Suggest, Google Groups, and others that become core Google products and services.

While Google’s new plan is not about making Labs a public brand — individuals will be hired into the project teams themselves (like Starline, e.g.) — the reorg itself could elevate the focus on some of Google’s bigger bets. And by bringing Labs under Bavor’s leadership — a veteran Googler who led product management for many high-profile Google projects over the years, including Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs, and Google Apps for Work (now Google Workspace) — Google is putting into place a leader with experience turning innovative ideas into core products.

In an announcement to staff, the company described the reorganization as one that’s “focused on starting and growing new, forward-looking investment areas across the company.”

“Central to this org is a new team called Labs, focused on extrapolating technology trends and incubating a set of high-potential, long-term projects,” it said.

Google has not publicly announced its reorganizational efforts. But after hearing about the moves from internal sources, Google confirmed to TechCrunch the changes are as we’ve described, including Bavor’s new position.

“Clay has taken on an expanded role. His work will focus on long-term technology projects that are in direct support of our core products and businesses,” a Google spokesperson said.