Currently, I think I prefer paragliding to gliders. Both are awesome, of course, but I kind of like the slower speed and the openness of a paraglider. I know that people that prefer gliders like them for the opposite reason — the speed! I’ve also heard a lot of paragliders get into gliders later in their life after their knees are shot from landings! So far my knees are good… so far so good!
Daily Photo – Central Otago
What a view from the glider! I have never taken photos from a glider before, so I was very happy to see they all turned out so nice. They were all taken with the Sony A7r and the 10-18mm NEX Lens.
It's hard to believe that the landscape below just goes on and on and on for hours and hours and hours. New Zealand looks so small on the map, but when you are here, it's like a Tardis-country!
Here’s a little video I made that shows the view out the window while landing in Sydney and then a slideshow from some photos from China. The looking-out-the-window bit is kinda boring for some people I guess… but I always stare out the window like a little kid whenever I land anywhere!
This photo below from the Air Force Museum was taken during my Google Loon Balloon adventure. The big unveiling was here in a huge theater. While everyone was getting set up, I was walking around taking a few photos. Anyway, in case you missed that Loon Balloon thing, here is a video below that shows a bit about it!
Daily Photo – The Air Force Museum in Christchurch
This is only the second airplane museum I have been to other than the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. It reminds me that I should go more often, because they are always awesome. This one had particularly cool lighting, which I’m always a sucker for! There’s also something very cool about seeing airplanes indoors — I’m not sure why that is other than just the pure novelty of it!
There was a 7-foot fence all around the tower. So, it was kind of fun to take tripod, open it up, and then use IT to straddle the fence rather than myself. Also, thanks to the articulating screen, I was able to aim it downwards so I could actually see what was going on. I think this is the only time I’ve ever aimed that screen downwards!
Daily Photo – Another Ruined Church in Christchurch
Walking around the streets of Christchurch at night was so creepy! It was cool, because I felt totally safe, but still…so strange. There are ruined buildings everywhere and hardly anyone is around. You do absolutely feel like you are on the set of a zombie movie!
I look forward to going back and getting more photos. There’s still plenty of life in the city — many pockets of lively and interesting activity, made even more lively by the weirdness of the whole scene.
I get a strange email from Google. Just sign the paperwork they say. We can’t tell you anything. I sign, assuming it’s gotta be cool with an approach like that.
Fast Forward One Week
Next thing I knew, I was up in a helicopter over Tekapo, New Zealand, sitting by Steven Levy from Wired magazine tracking balloons as they headed for the stratosphere. I was just a few hours north of my home in Queenstown, so I was excited to check out this secret Google X project right in my own backyard!
So, here’s the whole story. I’ll start with a video I shot with Google Glass that shows some of the behind-the-scenes. Can’t see it in your country? Here’s the Vimeo version.
(Note, there is the Longer Video coming soon that has a lot of the tech talk and geeky stuff if you want to know more.)
Here is beautiful Tekapo, NZ. The water is that wondrous color from all the fresh glacial melt.
So, what’s the reason for all this? Well, there are billions of people on Earth without Internet. Billions! What’s a crazy (loon-y) idea to get them Internet? Step in Project Loon from Google X and Rich DeVaul. What’s the net result of it all? You can see the little white dot-balloon in the photo bellow on the left floating over New Zealand.
The Internet floats over New Zealand. Another Google Loon Balloon makes its way towards the stratosphere, spreading Internet like ambrosia dripping from Mount Olympus. We soared up vertically over the mountains, spiraling up to track the balloons. I had great trouble spotting the balloon from the chopper! But there, you can see a little white dot there on the left in the sky. It's not like one of those giant hot-air balloons. It's more like a tiny weather balloon.
New Zealand was a perfect test bed because even though we have only 4 million people, 1 million of us don’t even have Internet. Or, if we have it, it’s crazy-expensive. We even visited one farmer (Charles) who said that he had to pay $1400 for ONE month of satellite-Internet. Crazy!
So, imagine a network, a mesh of balloons that spin around the earth, effortlessly handing off Internet from one balloon to the next, just like the way you hand off phone service from one tower to the next as you drive. You can see more about the tech on Google’s Project Loon site.
Inside the secret Google warehouse... somewhere in New Zealand. By the way, this place is very cold and full of things that you should not touch.
Anyhoo, I was invited along to take photos. Google was nice enough to even officially license a few photos (thanks!). No, they didn’t pay me to write a nice article. I’m just kind of a Google fan. Stephen Levy and Wired liked some of the more special photos too, so you can see even more in Stephen’s article (Wired magazine). Man, he’s a cool guy. You really get to know a dude when you’re ripping through the New Zealand mountains with these crazy Kiwi pilots!
After watching the flawless launch on a chilly morning, we ended up taking a chopper to a remote farm. There were a lot of choppers. It was kind of like Apocalypse Google Now.
We exit one of the choppers to go check the Internet on this farm. You can see the pilot running off with all my camera gear on his back.
We landed and jumped off to go try out the Internet. Again, flawless. I can only assume they had a few failed tests beforehand… they must have been working on this for a long time. But man, it was smooth. The family was super excited. They were on Trademe.co.nz, which is the eBay of New Zealand. The husband was looking for a new truck… his wife was not thrilled.
The balloons worked perfectly. Raven Aerostar is the company that is behind the balloons; they are Google’s design partner for Project Loon. They make balloons for NASA and stuff, so they are pretty hardcore.
Rich talks with one of the tester families. You can see the friendly red Google antenna above and the Loon balloon over there on the right (the tiny white spot!)
At lunch, the creator of the project, Rich DeVaul, told us a funny story. I don’t even know if I can repeat it, but I will. It seems innocuous enough. BTW, I’m not a real journalist or anything. I’m just a guy that takes photos and likes stories.
[Queue Radiolab soundeffects] Rich is tearing down a highway in central California. He’s in his own car. There are other Google people in there, and they are peering upwards and out the window like tornado chasers. They have radio antennae, laptops, and all kinds of crazy Google equipment as they try to track a balloon. At some point, they overload his alternator and they come to an unceremonious stop. They are stranded.
Rich has to call his wife to pick them up. She’s been in the dark for years about this project, and he hasn’t told her anything. She drives hours and hours to pick them up. He fills up her car with nerds and equipment and they sit there silently, ignoring the Fringe/X-Files nonsense that is happening in the backseat. His lips form a line as he looks side to side innocently. I’m not sure if that look actually happened, but it probably did.
I heard she’s here at this press conference that’s happening right now in Christchurch. So now she knows everything; She’s probably quite proud of him!
More balloons are lined up and ready for launch as a chopper lands behind.
And, by the way, if you are here in New Zealand in Christchurch, come see me at the Festival of Flight at the Air Force Museum on Sunday! The Project Loon event is from 10am-2pm on Sunday June 16th. There will be a lot about balloon science and stuff like that… bring the family! Here’s a map.
Anyway, hats off to all the engineers and team members. It’s a cool project. It’s all quite early, of course, but if they can keep iterating, it will be a really cool option to get Internet everywhere. I can see remote villages in Africa having one of those red-ballooned antennas. I can see it forcing competitive local Internet services in SE Asia to provide cheaper service and no data caps (the same way Google Fiber is disrupting competitive services). I can see myself putting one of those antenna on my truck so I have Internet no matter where I travel in New Zealand to take photos. Man, I can’t wait!