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Google’s Project Starline booth at Google i/o 2023

It’s been two years since Google introduced its Project Starline holographic video conferencing experiment, and though we didn’t hear more about it during the keynote at I/O 2023 today, there’s actually been an update. The company quietly announced that it’s made new prototypes of the Starline booth that are smaller and easier to deploy. I was able to check out a demo of the experience here at Shoreline Park and am surprised how much I enjoyed it.

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Video transcript

[AUDIO LOGO]

CHERLYNN LOW: It's been two years since we first heard about Google's Project Starline, which is this holographic video conferencing sort of project they were working on. And, yes, we didn't actually hear anything more about Project Starline, this Google I/O that just happened.

But the company actually quietly announced that its got new smaller prototypes of the Project Starline system. And it's doing demos here at the Shoreline Amphitheater. So I was lucky enough to be, basically, one of the first two people to check this out.

Now Google actually didn't allow us to get in and take photos or video of the setup itself. So you're going to have to just hear me talk about what it felt like. But, first, a little bit of a description of what's going on here.

According to Google, the earlier Project Starline prototypes took up an entire room and required complex hardware like infrared light emitters, special cameras to create a live 3D model of the person you're talking to. So due to the size and the complexity of those older setups, it was just challenging to bring those into actual offices.

The new prototypes are actually able to fit into spaces. And as part of Google's Early Access Program, it's actually given some of these units to companies like Salesforce, WeWork, and T-Mobile to get more feedback on how these systems can help distributed workforces. To my knowledge, this is also the first time members of the media have been able to check out Project Starline. And I'll tell you what it felt like, right?

Basically I walked into a room. There was this big mesh-type of a screen in front of me. Before anyone really got in there, it just looked like a stereo, sort of sounds, hi-fi setup, with cameras around a big rectangle and a sort of semi-circular speaker with a mesh covering on it.

Then, Andrew, who is the lead project manager for Starline walks in and I started to see him. To be clear, even though Andrew was in the next room talking to me through another one of these prototypes, what is happening is still beaming through the wi-fi network here at Google I/O.

So with the cameras that were surrounding this mesh window they were creating a 3D model of me and Andrew and then beaming it up, really, to do the processing in the cloud-- of doing the actual 3D model creating --and then beaming that down to the light field display I was sitting in front of to create that 3D image I was seeing.

I think face on, it didn't feel like it was 3D. He didn't feel like he was popping out. But the experience really blew my mind, kind of, when he picked up an apple and kind of like pushed it through towards me. And I really felt like I was able to touch him. I actually reached out, tried to grab the apple from him. And it felt like we were about to make contact. My hands actually overlapped his.

But at some points we were pushing the boundaries of kind of what the cameras could see, what the depth was going to extend to. And I showed just seeing his, kind of, fist turn blue, in the sense like, you know, you're hitting a boundary in a game. We never made physical contact because he was not actually there. But the holographic rendering was so good, it felt as if I could. I really felt like I was going to be able to touch his hand. And then I just didn't feel anything. It was air, right?

And so this is happening through the same system that the older prototype did. And it looked really good. I can't compare it, obviously, to the older version because I never tried that.

But he looked realistic. He looked just like the person I saw outside of the booth. He's here in person at I/O, except for obviously in different lighting, his complexion's different, like a lighter shade, maybe, outside in daylight. And then inside through the Project Starline experience he looked a little more red.

One hiccup I would say that we experienced, too, is that we couldn't really talk over each other very well. I would notice that if we were both talking at the same time, he didn't hear me at all. And this, I think Andrew will kind of explain later on, was in part, probably, due to the wi-fi system here, where we're having a lot of people on the same network. It is a challenge.

Once again, like I said, when you're sitting in front of this screen it really doesn't feel super 3D. So I tried kind of, to, like, go around and look at different angles to see if he would pop out a little bit more. And, yeah, he did. But I was also getting some indicators that I should stay centered in the frame. So, clearly, this is still a work in progress.

These are new prototypes. But we're not sure if these will be the final prototypes. Google is going to continue working on it. But it is going to be intriguing to see when it does come out, at last, to more people in the public, how this will impact the way we communicate.

Will this really be something people want to do? Is a holographic video call a decent substitute for the in-real-life experience? That's something we're going to have to wait to find out. So for more coverage out of Google I/O 2023, make sure you subscribe to Engadget.

[MUSIC PLAYING]