Mystery barge will be a floating Google retail store, report says

The question of who is behind the four-story, box-shaped building transported from Connecticut to Portland almost two months ago by barge has been answered. Journalists across the country, starting with those at the publication C|Net, determined a while ago with certainty that tech giant Google is playing the role of the Great & Powerful Oz in this little show.

But what has been a bit vague, still, was what, exactly, Google planned to do with these things.

(BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

(BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Today, San Francisco Chronicle investigative duo Phil Matier and Andy Ross published a story using a confidential construction budget they acquired as source material. According to that report, Google plans to launch three $35 million floating retail stores to help sell its Google Glass — the heavily buzzed-about spectacles that have little computer displays embedded in them — products.

(For those of you who haven’t been following this story, a similarly mysterious barge building was found under construction at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, and it wasn’t long before people on opposite coasts began to realize that the two might be related.)

In a column Matier wrote for San Francisco’s CBS affiliate KPIX, the floating showcases will consider their permanent homes San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. He wrote:

So the idea is to have the barges float up to different docks like a traveling medicine show. It’s sort of high-tech hybrid between maritime and bricks-and-mortar retailing. Instead of leasing property like the Apple Store, buzz gets generated just by pulling up dockside.

Again, for those just catching up, in early October, reporters in New London, Conn., were following up on rampant public speculation about what this square-shaped building being constructed on their waterfront was. Rumors emerged that it was a movie set or that it was a floating prison, but nobody from the construction company there nor local waterfront officials could or did confirm who was paying for the thing to be built or what it was for.

That Connecticut barge then made its way to Portland, where it was received at the Rickers Wharf Marine Facility by construction company Cianbro, whose CEO Peter Vigue would only say the project was “very important” and that his client demanded total secrecy.

A few weeks later, C|Net Senior Writer David Terdiman reported on a doppelganger of the Portland barge that had been similarly confounding people out in San Francisco. Terdiman determined that Google was very likely behind the projects, as the cardboard-cutout company set up to lease the Treasure Island space — By and Large LLC — had a paper trail that led back to the computer superpower.

Early last month, Google ultimately came clean (sort of) and announced that the floating buildings were being developed as interactive spaces where people could learn about new technologies. At that point, we were pretty close to the point we’re at now — it’s not a huge leap to go from “interactive space where people could learn about new technologies” to floating retail stores.

In the computer world, those are basically the same things.

According to Matier, though, the project may not go off completely without a hitch in San Francisco, where rules are in place to preserve high-value waterfront locations for maritime uses. The same rules are apparently frustrating the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, who have waterfront development plans of their own.

Writes Matier:

Technically, to put anything up on a pier, it’s supposed to have to some kind of maritime use. So Google is trying to convince the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission that it’s more than just retail — it’s a high-tech visitation center to interact with the Bay. It’s a store that can be used for more — that’s the pitch. Coincidentally, it’s a similar pitch that the Warriors are making for its proposed arena: yes, it’s a sports arena but you can dock a ship there and go out and look at the Bay as well.

Unlike the Warriors, Google, I suppose, could just float their project off to another bay if San Francisco becomes too difficult. And, I’ll admit it, I bet all this secrecy Google put into these mystery barges was a calculated attempt to build up suspense and intrigue surrounding their eventual launches.

Floating retail stores? They’d attract a few news crews at the ribbon cuttings and all that. But top secret projects, where government officials were forced to sign confidentiality agreements and U.S. congressmen were convinced it was a Hollywood set? That kind of publicity, which intentionally or not depicts Google as a James Bond-type gadget developer so cutting-edge that the feds can’t even talk about it, could be priceless.

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Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.