While Meta is trying to convince consumers to strap on its VR headsets to enter the metaverse, Google continues to experiment with a different sort of false reality: its holographic video chat project known as Project Starline. Announced last year, Project Starline is a video-calling booth that uses 3D imagery, high-resolution cameras, custom depth sensor sensors and a breakthrough light field display to create a lifelike experience for callers on both sides of the screen — and all without a required headset. Now, Google says it’s expanding its real-world tests with an early access program that will see Starline used in the offices of various enterprise partners, including Salesforce, WeWork, T-Mobile and Hackensack Meridian Health.
Google will begin installing Project Starline prototypes in select partner offices for regular testing starting later this year, it noted.
Until now, the 3D calling booths were found in Google’s offices in the U.S. where employees were able to test them for things like meetings, employee onboarding sessions, and more. The company had also invited more than 100 enterprise partners in areas like media, healthcare and retail to demo the technology in its offices and offer their feedback about the experience.
With the launch of the new early access program, those partners will be able to test the calling booths in their own offices, providing Google with valuable feedback and insights about how such a technology would be used in the real world and what sort of challenges it may face.
Those who have been able to test Project Starline have described the experience as being incredibly realistic and an impressive technology, even in its early phases.
But there have been questions about to what extent Starline would ever exist beyond being a very cool tech demo, versus a technology that would eventually become a part of office workers’ — much less consumers’ — everyday lives. It’s unclear if Google has a plan to actually commercialize the tech, what these calling booths would cost businesses to either purchase and maintain, and whether or not there’s enough demand for the technology in a world where Zoom and Google Meet are considered “good enough” solutions for virtual meetings. (Plus, they can support more than the one-on-one conversations Starline offers.)
In addition, Project Starline’s long-term status at Google has been unknown as the project was wrapped up into a reorg a year ago that saw Google relocating its various AR and VR technologies, along with its internal R&D group known as Area 120, into a new “Labs” team. This September, Google then slashed the number of projects in Area 120 by half — an indication that it may not see these sorts of experiments as priorities in the current economic environment. Even some Googlers were not sure how Project Starline was still around, given the situation.
Still, Starline’s tech is an interesting bet on a different kind of “virtual” reality — one where people aren’t represented with gaming-like avatars, but rather as their real selves. Instead of developing tech that uses cameras to track eye and face movements to make avatars more realistic, as Meta is now doing, or figuring out how to add legs to your in-VR body, Google is working to present a person as they are — and without the additional encumbrance of having to wear something on your head.
Meanwhile, as more businesses are trying to figure out the hybrid future of work model, technology like Starline could bridge the gap between in-person meetings and the less-idea 2D video chat experience we have today.
Partners like WeWork and Salesforce spoke of their interest in trying out the tech, which they believe could help make connections between people more meaningful.
“In today’s digital-first world, companies need to provide the technology and tools to help employees be more productive and effective at work,” Andy White, SVP of Business Technology at Salesforce, said in a statement. “At Salesforce, we’re constantly exploring new ways to deliver incredible experiences to our employees and customers around the world. Project Starline has the potential to drive deeper connections between people by bridging in-person and virtual experiences.”
Google says it will share more about what it learns from its early access program next year.