Google’s Project Starline Touts Hologram-ish, 3D Video Calling

May 19, 2021 by Dave Haynes

Google had its annual I/O conference yesterday, and among the new pots and pans the tech giant said it was working on was something called Project Starline – a very involved, more lifelike take on video calling.

It is something akin to a video calling booth that has a 65-inch display that relays, in real time, a remote video presence of another person that looks very much like that person is sitting across the booth table.

Google says it is using cameras, sensors and software to three-dimensionally capture and relay the visuals and audio to show on a Light Field Display screen.

Says Google:

To make this experience possible, we are applying research in computer vision, machine learning, spatial audio and real-time compression. We’ve also developed a breakthrough light field display system that creates a sense of volume and depth that can be experienced without the need for additional glasses or headsets.

The effect is the feeling of a person sitting just across from you, like they are right there. 

I don’t know a whole bunch about light field displays, but this doesn’t really seem like the ones I have seen at display nerd trade shows like Display Week. Those have been small and/or soft-focused and VERY prototype-y.

It looks very much, instead, like a take on what LA-based PORTL has been doing with its use of green screens, shadows and custom transparent LCD “booths” to digitally transport and replicate a person across a room, city, country or planet.

PORTL calls what it does a hologram just so people can get their heads around the concept, but that’s more a case of needing to call the tech something. PORTL knows what they do is not technically holography.

In the case of Starline, what it really is – whatever that may be – perhaps doesn’t matter all that much.

The bigger question is whether organizations, somewhere down the road, would buy and install a commercialized version of these booths from Google or a partner. As with most things, it will come down to cost and who wins the debate over whether seeing a more lifelike, three-dimensional Bob, beaming in from the St. Louis office, is worth the additional cost and complexity.

I couldn’t get Google Meet to play nice yesterday with my $300 webcam yesterday, and a little searching showed I was not alone with the issue. So I’d rather Google smooth out the bugs on basic video calling before it gets too whiz-bang-y with 3D and holograms.

In the context of digital signage and public screens, more lifelike, three-dimensional video could have an appeal for things like remote service advisors – the difference between talking to someone on a screen, who is somewhere else, and talking to someone who “seems” to be on the other side of a glass partition. That could have implications for things life staffing, subject matter expertise and language.

Overall, it seems interesting, but the end-product, if one comes out, will likely be quite a bit different from this. A lot of new stuff comes and goes with Google, but this one already has five years of R&D behind it.

Wired has a good piece up explaining Starline a bit more.

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