What's That Dang Thing Doing Here?

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There’s a funny skit Steve Martin used to do back in the day, where he’s dressed like a tourist and spends several minutes pointing off camera, saying things like, “What the hell is that?” and “What’s that dang thing doing here?” and “How did that thing get here?” I imagine crowds of people in San Francisco and Portland, ME, behaving similarly in response to two barges floating — one each — in their respective harbors.

Each barge supports a structure built from shipping containers. The two vessels are registered to a Delaware-based company called By and Large LLC, which owns four barges with the registration BAL0001, BAL0010, BAL0011 and BAL0100. The last four digits after “BAL” are the binary codes for “one,” two,” “three” and “four.”

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Apparently Google is behind it all. CNET’s Daniel Terdiman reports that “after going through lease agreements, tracking a contact tied to the project on LinkedIn, talking to locals on Treasure Island and consulting with experts, it’s all but certain that Google is the entity that is building the massive structure that’s in plain sight, but behind tight security.”

Google won’t confirm or deny it, though, and none of the workers, the private security guards or even the Coast Guard will divulge what’s going. According to Reuters, Larry Goldzband, the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, had several meetings with Google officials but wouldn’t tell reporters what the barge was for.

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Of course, several people have made a few “Aww, I know what that is” guesses. CNET thinks it might be a floating data center. After all, Google has a patent for such a vessel that could be used in the event of an emergency. Although skeptics say the structure isn’t big enough to be a data center and managing the connectivity would be difficult.

“Hey you kids, get away from there.”

Others think the structures could be floating retail stores designed to promote Google Glass. CBS-affiliate KPIX, cites an unnamed source close to the project, who said that Google was constructing an Apple Store-like center for the augmented-reality glasses. The Business Insider cites a report from KPIX-CBS in San Francisco, saying:

“A source who has been onboard the vessel, which is moored off San Francisco’s Treasure Island under tight security, told KPIX 5 the first three floors are designed to serve as ‘dazzling showrooms’ that can be outfitted with chrome features and floor lighting. There is an upper ‘party deck’ meant to feature bars, lanais and other comforts so Google can fete its upscale customers.”

Floating retail stores are innovative, but not new. Last year, Target had a floating retail store in the form of a 220-foot boat docked on Manhattan’s West Side and PUMA has used shipping containers to build pop-up stores.

But the reason for the barges could be neither of those. One thing’s for certain, “Don’t put your lips on it.”

To get a close up of the barge in Maine, check out this report and video from Tom Bell of the Portland Press Herald.

Credit: Video screengrab, Tom Bell, Portland Press Herald