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 whacky 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.''
The first person to get Google Balloon Internet access this week was Charles Nimmo, a farmer and entrepreneur in the small town of Leeston. He found the experience a little bemusing after he was one of 50 locals who signed up to be a tester for a project that was so secret, no one would explain to them what was happening. Technicians came to the volunteers' homes and attached to the outside walls bright red receivers the size of basketballs and resembling giant Google map pins.
Nimmo got the Internet for about 15 minutes before the balloon transmitting it sailed on past. His first stop on the Web was to check out the weather because he wanted to find out if it was an optimal time for "crutching'' his sheep, a term he explained to the technicians refers to removing the wool around sheep's rear ends.
Nimmo is among the many rural folk, even in developed countries, that can't get broadband access. After ditching his dial-up four years ago in favor of satellite Internet service, he's found himself stuck with bills that sometimes exceed $1,000 in a single