But what if you could feel like you were actually sitting across from your friend or family member—without having to traverse oceans or timezones? That’s the idea behind Google’s Project Starline, a holographic, three-dimensional “telepresence” platform that practically plops loved ones right in front of you.
Project Starline works by using more than a dozen cameras and sensors to scan approximately one cubic meter of space, in which you (and on the other end, the person you’re calling) sit. As Google continuously captures your image, it compresses the data in real time so it can be sent across your average network. Once that data reaches its destination, Google renders your image on a glass display, creating a holographic effect that makes it appear as though you’re really there. Spatial audio helps your voice fill the space, while Google’s “breakthrough light field display system” creates a realistic sense of volume and depth.
Google first announced Project Starline last year at its Google I/O developer conference keynote. Now it’s testing the technology at a few of its corporate offices. CNET editor Scott Stein was invited to test Project Starline for himself. In his review of the trial, Stein mentioned that the life-size, real-time video chat was jarring at first (if only because it’s unlike anything most of us have ever experienced), but that it eventually became second nature. “It felt…well, it felt like we were chatting at a coffee shop table,” he writes.
This sense of realism appears to have positive implications for the way people communicate. Google has reportedly found that users experience heightened attentiveness, memory recall, and overall sense of presence when conducting conversations via Project Starline instead of a traditional video call. People display up to 40 percent more non-verbal behaviors like nods, eyebrow movements, and hand gestures, while also paying closer attention to their conversation partner and remembering the chat better after the fact.
The technology isn’t perfect, of course. Sometimes the tops of people’s heads look a bit jagged or fuzzy because they aren’t quite rendered properly, and the overall display resolution isn’t as crisp as some people would like. It also goes without saying that this isn’t something the average person will be able to use every day, thanks to the hefty setup: Users currently have to step into a booth, which houses both a seating area and a glass display surrounded by Project Starline’s many sensors. Still, for a platform that imitates the in-person experience without bulky headsets, Project Starline seems impressive.