Google and the accidental mystery of Webdriver Torso

A series of 11-second videos have been driving the internet crazy. There are over 80,000 of them, and all they show are a series of blue and red rectangles moving around on screen in seemingly random directions. The soundtrack is equally obtuse, comprised of a series of varying sine wave tones. The mysterious videos, posted by YouTube user Webdriver Torso, have become something of an infuriating web phenomenon. Why? Well, the internet can't resist a good mystery (or a bad one for that matter). Are they encoded spy messages? Contact from aliens? Or, just plain, old test videos that have caught the collective imagination? A lot of internet man-hours have gone into figuring out what, or who is behind them, and we can exclusively confirm the answer. If you're impatient you can skip right to the end for the reveal, but lets take some time to recap the story so far.

The Webdriver Torso account started uploading videos to YouTube eight months ago at a pretty staggering rate — as often as every two minutes at its peak. Every single one of them is 11 seconds long. Almost all of them are the same format. For example, there's the classic tmpAZWIOG, the avant-garde tmpXsjor2 and my second favorite, the sublime tmpvRXNJM. They all make for pretty perplexing viewing. Nothing but shapes and tones. But, this is the internet, and people demand an explanation, and when you sprinkle in some vivid imaginations (oh, and one random Eiffel Tower video that sticks out like a sore thumb) you have the makings of an online mystery.

It's not just a mystery that has existed in the usual cool shade of internet forums, either. There's been input from sites like The Daily Dot, and even the BBC and The Guardian have waded into the fray. As interest in the YouTube account snowballed, inevitably it would attract individuals with a little more to add other than wild speculation. A thread on BoingBoing would see user "Isaulv" claim that they had seen very similar images displayed on a set-top box at a Google conference about automation, suggesting that the clips are created by software as a means of testing the quality of uploaded video. The Guardian, however, reported that the same user managed to track down the slides from the show, which revealed that the test videos were actually slightly different. And like that, the web's best sleuths were back to square one.

An Italian blogger, who goes by the name "Soggetto Ventuno," deserves perhaps more credit than anyone else in solving the Webdriver Torso puzzle. Ventuno approached The Daily Dot with his findings, which were the result of what can only be described as some serious internet sleuthing. Ventuno discovered (via this site) that the Webdriver Torso account was part of a network of accounts called ytuploadtestpartner_torso. Further pulling on this thread revealed a handful of other accounts with similar videos. Many of which were pulled, or made private, once Ventuno's investigations were published. A Google+ account associated with ytuploadtestpartner_torso also linked to a random Facebook page, and a Twitter account — both of which have since been taken down.

The removal of these links was too late though, as Ventuno had already garnered enough information from them to take the next steps. The Facebook account mentioned "Johannes Leitner," a Google employee who happened to be friends with fellow employee Matei Gruber, who was based in Zurich. "Matei" was a name directly mentioned in the Eiffel Tower clip referenced earlier, one of only two clips that isn't blue and red shapes. (The other is an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force dubbed in French.) Ventuno continued pulling at this thread, even comparing images of the Zurich Google office to those of scenes from some of the pulled videos (he noted matching lamps and desk phones, among other things).

The evidence was piling up, but what about the boring, meaningless videos? Well, not all of them were quite so dry. The more observant/persistent observer might have spotted something unusual about the video "tmpRkRL85." If not, you can watch it below, and see if for yourself.

Now, anyone who's been on the internet for more than a week should instantly recognize those silky smooth dance moves. This prolific account subtly Rickrolled any armchair detectives paying close attention — you think it's just more boxes then, bam, Rick Astley's silhouette is all up in your grill. This video appears to be the first solid indication that something fishy is up. Further clues started to crawl out of the woodwork, suggesting that YouTube and Google were keen to stoke the coals of curiosity too. Search either site for "Webdriver Torso" and you'll be treated with a related Easter egg. If nothing else, Webdriver Torso had clearly reached a tipping point.

So, with a strong enough theory to suggest that these videos could have originated from Google directly (via its Zurich office,) and a few official hat tips to the account (via the YouTube menu Easter egg and Google Doodle), we decided to ask the video site directly for an official statement, and this is what we received (warning, may contain mild Rickrolling):

"We're never gonna give you uploading that's slow or loses video quality, and we're never gonna let you down by playing YouTube in poor video quality. That's why we're always running tests like Webdriver Torso."

Turns out this channel is how Google keeps tabs on upload quality. Clips are sent to YouTube's servers and then compared against the original file to ensure that the quality remains the same. The account going viral was just an accident, though once it happened Google was more than happy to play into the fun.Those other accounts that have since vanished or gone private? They're all Google test accounts too, though the web giant wouldn't divulge what exactly Ekaterina Basic or Timmy Tester were experimenting with.

So there you go. It wasn't aliens; nor was it a post-Cold-War spy transmission system. It was, after all that, an upload-testing system that, in no uncertain terms, got totally out of hand.