Google Inc. is building self-driving cars and balloons to beam Internet service from the sky. Now it also wants to make giant TVs.
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Google's secretive advanced-projects lab is developing a display composed of smaller screens that plug together like Legos to create a seamless image, according to three people familiar with the project.
With the modular pieces, the screen could be made into different sizes and shapes, the people said.
The previously undisclosed project is led by Mary Lou Jepsen, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor best known for co-founding the One Laptop Per Child project, an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful project to give cheap laptops to tens of millions of children in poor countries.
Ms. Jepsen co-founded three startups around display technology. The most recent, Pixel Qi, specializes in low-power displays that can be read in direct sunlight. She now heads the display division inside Google X, Google's futuristic products lab. Her small team appears to include veteran engineers from Samsung Electronics Co. and Qualcomm Inc. among other companies, according to profiles posted on LinkedIn.
"I loved flashing colored lights as a kid, and I just kept going with that," she said in a talk to developers at a Google conference in 2013. According to her website, she created a system in the early 1990s to project video on the Moon but abandoned it for health reasons.
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Much about her current project isn't known, including the size of the modules, the potential size of the giant display, or why Google is interested. A Google spokeswoman declined to comment.
In theory, such a large screen might be used to watch television or movies, browse the Internet and read email, perhaps simultaneously, said Riddhi Patel, research director at NPD DisplaySearch.
Ms. Patel said the largest screens today are about 110 inches diagonally, slightly more than nine feet. A Samsung model that measures 105 inches is listed for $120,000 on Amazon.
Even so, Ms. Patel said she doesn't see a need for ultra-large screens in homes today. Before consumers would adopt such technology, she said, manufacturers will have to make the screens cheaper and easier to install and use.
Among the problems that the group is trying to solve, the people familiar with the project said, is how to make display modules that are "seamless" so that people looking at a giant screen wouldn't see the borders between the modules. The project remains at an early stage and has been kept secret, even within Google, partly because the technical challenges are as large as the planned screens, one of the people said.
"The big challenge is to electronically, and through software, do the stitching between the seams," another person familiar said. Google X is trying to recruit more display experts to work on the problem, the person added.
Google X may be getting help from Gecko Design, a mechanical engineering and product design company that the research lab acquired in August.
Gecko worked on the One Laptop Per Child project. In August, Gecko Chief Executive Jacques Gagné said Gecko had been working with Google X since 2013 on a project he wouldn't disclose. He said Gecko was joining the research lab to work on a "variety of cutting-edge projects."
Wednesday, Mr. Gagné declined to comment on whether his team is working on the Google X display effort.
Microsoft Corp. has been working on large display technology since at least 2012 when the software company acquired Perceptive Pixel. Founded by Jeff Han, the startup has made touch-screen systems larger than 80 inches for many years.
During a Microsoft developer conference in 2012, Han predicted that giant displays someday will be in every meeting room, conference room and classroom.
Google has had mixed results with its futuristic hardware. Google Glass, its Internet-connected eyewear, has recently seen employee defections ahead of an anticipated rollout in 2015. The device has suffered from its nerdy image and privacy concerns. Google's cheap Chromebook laptops and Chromecast TV streaming device are both popular with consumers.
Google has previously disclosed a handful of projects inside Google X. Besides Google Glass, the unit is also home to Google's self-driving car project; a futuristic contact lens for diabetics that could use tears to measure blood-glucose levels; a project to deliver Internet access from balloons in the stratosphere; as well as a new life sciences team collecting data to understand human health.