Google’s ‘Project Starline’ Makes Virtual Meetings Feel Like In-Person

Google is workong on elevating the virtual meeting experience with its ongoing Project Starline, which brings a three-dimensional aspect to online video communication.

Virtual calls and meetings have become a regular part of everyday life especially due to travel restrictions and mandated office closures that came as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. While video calls are part of the new normal, Google argues that the two-dimensional experience of hearing and seeing someone on your screen, especially with a lower resolution camera, does not quite compare to a real-life encounter.

To bridge this gap between virtual communication using mainstream technology at our disposal and the reality of seeing someone face-to-face, Google has worked on what it calls Project Starline.

The project originated from an idea perceived by Clay Bavor, who works at Google and leads teams focused on virtual and augmented reality. In an interview with Wired, Bavor says he wanted “full-on photo-realistic, volumetric video meetings that make it look, sound, and feel like the other person is sitting across the table from you—no headset required.”

Project Starline utilizes the latest advancements of computer vision, machine learning, spatial audio, and real-time compression to enable people who are cities and countries apart to give them a sense of true togetherness. In addition, Google claims that it has developed a breakthrough light field display system that creates a sense of volume and depth that doesn’t require users to wear additional glasses or headsets to immerse themselves in the experience.

What this translates to in practical terms is a technology-equipped video booth that both users enter from their corresponding locations. Featuring a large 65-inch display, they are able to engage in a face-to-face live video call with the other life-sized person sat directly in front of them.

“These sensors capture photo-realistic, three-dimensional imagery; the system then compresses and transmits the data to each light field display, on both ends of the video conversation, with seemingly little latency,” Wired senior writer Lauren Goode reports on her experience testing out the prototype and experiencing the depth sensors and cameras in action.

Goode says that during the live call, Google also applies adjustments, such as lighting and shadows, to create “hyper-real representations of your colleagues on video calls.”

So far, Google has tested Project Starline internally to connect its employees between the Bay Area, New York, and Seattle. Google has also conducted demos with certain enterprise partners — such as those in the healthcare and media industries — in order to obtain useful feedback that could help in understanding the potential uses and applications of this product.

The project is ongoing and is unlikely to be soon introduced commercially or to be easily affordable for personal use. Google says that Starline’s prototypes are currently available in just a few of its offices and rely on custom-built hardware and highly specialized equipment, but the company believes that this is a step towards where virtual communication like this “can and should go.” For its enterprise partners, Google plans to trial deployments later this year.