CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand - Wrinkled and skinny at first, the translucent, jellyfish-shaped balloons that Google released this week from a frozen field in the heart of New Zealand's South Island hardened into shiny pumpkins as they rose into the blue winter skies above Lake Tekapo, passing the first big test of a lofty goal to get the entire planet online.
It was the culmination of 18 months' work on what Google calls Project Loon, in recognition of how wacky the idea may sound. Developed in the secretive X lab that came up with a driverless car and web-surfing eyeglasses, the flimsy helium-filled inflatables beam the Internet down to earth as they sail past on the wind.
Still in their experimental stage, the balloons were the first of thousands that Google's leaders eventually hope to launch 20 kilometers (12 miles) into the stratosphere in order to bridge the gaping digital divide between the world's 4.8 billion unwired people and their 2.2 billion plugged-in counterparts.
If successful, the technology might allow countries to leapfrog the expense of laying fiber cable, dramatically increasing Internet usage in places such as Africa and Southeast Asia.
"It's a huge moonshot. A really big goal to go after," said project leader Mike Cassidy. "The power of the Internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time."
See complete coverage in Sunday's Times Free Press.