Why Google's 'Starline' Could Be A Template For How Virtual Meetings And Remote Work Look In The Future

Why Google's 'Starline' Could Be A Template For How Virtual Meetings And Remote Work Look In The FuturePicture from Google's video about Project Starline
Snapshot
  • If and when Starline gets ready, it’s likely to make a commercial debut in businesses well before homes.

    This is not to say that technological offshoots of this project cannot enhance existing digital tools much sooner.

Over the last year and a half, video calling has gone from a ‘nice’ option to a necessity. Without video conferencing tools, communicating in the pandemic — whether personal or professional — would have been tougher.

This is evident from the flood of users who took to popular video-conferencing tools like Zoom for the first time in early 2020.

While in December 2019, Zoom recorded a maximum of 10 million daily users, that number was through the roof at 200 million in March during the first three months of the virus outbreak.

Similarly, Google reported a 30x increase in peak daily usage of its video-conferencing app Google Meet in the months January through April in 2020.

Since then, video conferencing tools have remained a staple of personal and professional life.

Even as the grasp of the virus over society eases, predictions abound that the use of video conferencing is here to stay, especially impacting travel for work.

But will video conferencing, beneficial as it is, look the way it does now in the years ahead? Will the cries of “please unmute” and “can’t see you clearly” persist?

In the third week of May, Google made an announcement about the development of a next-generation video-conferencing tool as part of “Project Starline”.

Through this innovation, the American technology company aims to help people not just be together over a video call but also “feel together” regardless of the distance keeping them apart.

On its blog, Google describes Project Starline as “a technology project that combines advances in hardware and software to enable friends, families and coworkers to feel together, even when they're cities (or countries) apart”.

The company envisions a “magic window” through which you see another person — located somewhere else and using the same technology — looking “life-size and in three dimensions”.

How exciting is that?

The idea is to make the experience of talking to another person on video less artificial. “You can talk naturally, gesture and make eye contact,” says the blog announcing the project, keeping much of the details still under wraps.

The offering, described as a large “video booth” by a senior writer for Wired who tested it out herself, relies on a light field display system that helps create a sense of volume and depth.

Google says it is “applying research in computer vision, machine learning, spatial audio and real-time compression” to make the experience possible.

In her Wired report, writer Lauren Goode said she sat in a booth “with a built-in bench on one side and a 65-inch display on the other” and “a dozen different depth sensors and cameras”.

“There were lights, cameras, and not a whole lot of action until a product manager sat down across from me. From a very specific angle, he looked as though he was sitting across from me. But he was on a different floor of the building, piping into our meeting through Starline,” she writes.

During her test run, Goode encountered imperfections too; for instance, after she moved a few inches to the side, things stopped looking all that 3D any more.

Of course, this is natural as the technology is still at the prototype stage. Google says it has got colleagues across the Bay Area, New York, and Seattle connected via this platform — only some employees across a few offices have access to Starline. Their feedback would likely inform further developments.

Additionally, Google has engaged “select enterprise partners” in the areas of healthcare and media to hear what they think about Starline. The company plans to expand this trial deployment to more enterprise partners later this year.

So, a natural question would be: how many years would it take for us regular folks to use the technology?

Google hasn’t given a time frame, but it’s likely to take years. The company has said it will be back with more updates later this year.

Given that it has a whole booth system, if and when Starline gets ready, it’s likely to make commercial debut in businesses well before homes.

This is not to say that technological offshoots of this Google project cannot enhance our existing digital tools much sooner. After all, Project Starline has already been in the works for five years, and, contrary to what one might expect, not spurred on recently by the pandemic. However, only further updates can clarify the situation.

Picture from Google's video about Project Starline
Picture from Google's video about Project Starline

In terms of potential applications, one can imagine Project Starline — say, on the professional front — benefiting offices beyond regular communication between colleagues. For instance, it could make life easier for recruiters as job interviews between employers and candidates would feel more real and, therefore, help both parties connect better and make better assessments during the process.

Google has mentioned that they will be testing out this technology in healthcare. It isn’t known at this point what the healthcare test run would look like, but Starline certainly provides an opening to make advances in telehealth.

As a possibility, a Reuters report quoting a research engineer says that a patient in a doctor’s office could virtually connect with a specialist located far away with the help of the technology.

With respect to challenges — the entire setup, including the booth and sensors and lights and cameras, and not to forget “custom-built hardware and highly specialized equipment”, makes one wonder how accessible and affordable Starline will be if and when it’s ready for commercial deployment. Mobility is an important factor in future technologies.

In addition, in its current form, Starline seems to be designed for use by two individuals, each one seated on either end of the screen. As mentioned earlier, the Wired writer testing out Starline found that the 3D image turned to 2D with just a few inches of sideways movement. What would that mean for video conferencing between multiple people and in cases where, say, movement would be involved?

Google previously worked on virtual reality (VR) — a means to enable a person to interact with a simulated environment in 3D. The company had come out with its VR headsets Cardboard and Daydream, but the general public didn’t seem to take a liking to them. As a result, Google cut back on its VR offerings. It took out both Daydream and Cardboard from the market.

But leaving its VR venture behind, Google may be on to something with its Project Starline. With the right tweaks and tuning, it may just be a way to help connect humans better in an increasingly virtual world. Hopefully, updates from Google later this year will give us more insights into this ambitious project.

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