May 11, 2023 - Technology

A glimpse of video conferencing's future with Google's Starline

Google's smaller Project Starline video conferencing system

Photo: Google

The Google product I was most keen to try out at this year's I/O conference was Project Starline, an advanced video conferencing system that Google first showed off at I/O 2021.

What's new: It's still a work-in-progress, but Google has slimmed down the custom hardware, which had taken up an entire room, to the size of a large TV. That's small enough that it was able to set up several Starline booths at I/O this year. Google is now testing prototype systems at WeWork, Salesforce and T-Mobile.

How it works: Starline uses a combination of technologies to create the appearance that someone you are chatting with is right next to you, life-sized and fully three-dimensional.

  • Among the technologies that make that possible are sensors that track eyes and ears to server up stereoscopic video on a flat screen as well as spatial audio.
  • Google has managed to replace what had been a collection of special cameras and infrared light emitters with a combination of standard cameras and — you guessed it — AI.

My take: Starline is more compelling than any of the hologram systems I have tried.

  • Its power isn't measured in pixels or frame rates, but rather in the way it delivers intimacy and humanity, qualities one just doesn't ascribe to Zoom calls no matter how good the quality.
  • My demo consisted of a short conversation ("video call" doesn't feel right) with a Google employee chatting from another Starline booth a few yards away. It was compelling throughout, but turned jaw-dropping when he reached forward with a juicy red apple that looked so realistic I was sure I could reach out and grab it. (I could not.)

Yes, but: While Google has made strides to make Starline more compact and reduce its significant hardware requirements, the system is still so costly that the company won't even offer up an estimate on pricing. Its design also makes it suitable for one-on-one meetings but not group conferencing.

Go deeper: Google has posted a YouTube video of the new Starline hardware in action — but 2D video can't capture its impact.

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