Google begins serious, real-world testing of giant video chat booths

Google begins serious, real-world testing of giant video chat booths
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A Project Starline booth with a 3D display and multiple cameras.
expand / A Project Starline booth with a 3D display and multiple cameras.


Google seems really serious about the crazy “Project Starline” video booth idea. mystery project announced As part of the Google I/O 2021 keynote, but initially overshadowed by more concrete Wear OS and Android announcements. A year has passed and Google is still advancing with this idea: Announcing extended enterprise testing with third parties. Google says it’s also working to make Starline “more accessible.”

Basically, Project Starline asks the question: “What if Zoom were a giant, inhabitable arcade machine?” While the home console version of video chat includes a tiny camera above your laptop’s screen, Starline brings 3D video chat to life in a 7×7 meter living cabin, seemingly regardless of cost, size or commercialization. The goal is to make it look like the other person is in the room with you, and Google classifies it as a “research project.”

As for what Starline really is, a Google Research paper contains a good amount of detail. On the screen side of the video cabinet are 14 cameras and 16 IR projectors, all working to create, capture and monitor a real-time, photorealistic 3D avatar of the user. Four microphones and two speakers not only play speech; spatialized audio and dynamic beamforming make speech sound like it’s coming out of the avatar’s mouth.

Sending a 3D avatar over a video chat link allows Google to correct the eye line, which is a constant problem in regular video chat. A webcam at the top of a screen makes it impossible to make eye contact while looking at a screen, while a 3D avatar can allow for mutual eye contact, eliminating the connection between the center of the camera and the center of the screen. Google compresses all this data into a powerful dual Xeon workstation with “four NVIDIA GPUs (two Quadro RTX 6000 and two Titan RTX)”.

The display is a 65-inch, 8K, 60Hz autostereoscopic lenticular panel that creates a glasses-free 3D image of a life-size avatar. It’s basically a big Nintendo 3DS – but it has a bigger sweet spot thanks to head tracking. On the other side of the stand is an infrared backlight and a rather harsh-looking bench to confine the user to the 3D sweet spot of the screen and limit the scope of the entire avatar creation system. Google has even placed a small barrier between the counter and the screen to hide the bottom of the screen. Rather than awkwardly ending when an avatar hits the bottom of the screen, a physical blockage at the bottom of the screen tricks your brain into thinking the rest of the avatar is behind the barrier. Google seems determined to control every possible variable with Project Starline, so much so that the cabinet even has its own lighting system, with both diffuse visible lighting to aid 3D texture capture and a massive infrared backlight to aid 3D imaging.

Users who have tried Starline i seem to like it but considering you have to be personally invited by Google to try it, that’s just a very small handful of people. It’s hard to imagine a market where there should be a six-digit video booth the size of a small bathroom, but Google is testing more. A Google statement states: “Today, Project Starline prototypes are in Google offices in the US, and employees use the technology every day for meetings, onboarding, and intimacy with colleagues.”

Unlike the overly flashy promotional video, this Siggraph presentation explains much better what’s going on.

The company continues, “We invited more than 100 corporate partners in areas such as media, healthcare and retail, as well as Google employees, to attend demos at Google’s offices and gave us feedback on the experience and practices for their business. We see Project Starline’ There are many ways in which we can add business value across many industries, and we continue to focus on making it more accessible.” Salesforce, WeWork, T-Mobile, and Hackensack Meridian Health signed up to try it. WeWork, a company built on renting out an office space that’s too expensive to own, seems particularly fascinated by the idea.

Google can talk about “research” whatever it wants, but the company notorious aggressive when it comes to killing things that don’t have hundreds of millions of users. Will there be any products here? Starline is somewhat adjacent to the huge corporate meeting equipment market, but a few limitations make Starline difficult for serious meetings. Corporate meeting equipment is usually designed for a large group sitting at a table, and wide compatibility means anyone can call a meeting with just about any equipment. Starline only works with one person for one-on-one chat and you can only talk to other Starline booths. Is there a market for VIP-to-VIP communications booths like a modernized version of the President’s red phone?

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