I've tested Google Starline – and it could make the world a much smaller place

Ultra-real 3D video chat could bring people closer together and disrupt outdated communications, but the cost remains to be seen

Google's Starline video-calling device. Photo: Google
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The person facing you appears so real that you instinctively reach out to touch them.

In fact, that is the only thing that reminds you that they are not right before you – instead of in the next room, across the city or half way around the globe.

For in every other aspect, Google Starline's 3D video calling technology is dazzlingly realistic, so much so they have called it the “magic window”.

This week, after years of methodical research and quiet enthusiasm, the technology company said it was finally ready to commercialise Project Starline, which could well and truly upset the apple cart of the communications world.

For a doctor to talk a patient through a procedure, with props before them, for a teacher and student to learn a language huddled together, and for far-flung relatives to break down the barrier of the screen – this holds huge promise

Google will work with computer maker HP to bring its system into homes from 2025. There are further plans to integrate it with Google Meet and Zoom.

The news came after nearly a decade of development that was kept hush hush, with the exception of a brief announcement in 2021, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic may be over but the systems developed in that time have changed and, in the process, changed the way we work, travel (at least for work) and communicate across the board.

You could be forgiven for thinking Google may have missed the boat, given the dominance of Zoom and Teams – but Google has a far bigger play at hand.

Glimpse of the future

On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos in January, selected reporters were invited able to try Project Starline with those who helped to create the technology, and The National was among them.

In an upstairs room of a quaint Swiss hotel, with snow piled high on the steps up to it, we were given a demonstration on the condition we would not record anything or write about it at the time.

We took it in turns to speak to each other from the room next door.

The results were more than impressive.

It is not just the crystal clear screen and lifelike appearance of a friend or relative that makes this so sought-after.

It is the potential for this technology that comes with it. For a medical doctor to be able to talk a patient through a procedure, with props or tools before them, for a teacher and student to learn a language huddled together, and for far-flung relatives to break down the barrier of the screen, it holds huge promise.

Items held in your hand and waved look startlingly real, at least in the booth in which the device we tried was set up.

The magic is only broken when you lean far forwards or backwards – the effect is like breaking through a Zoom background – or if you try to thrust an apple through the screen to your friend.

“After thousands of hours of testing across Google offices and with enterprise partners, we found that meetings in Starline feel more like being in the same room instead of traditional video calls,” Alphabet-owned company said this week.

What remains to be seen is how much this technology will cost, and there has not even been a ballpark figure given.

Google said it is taking Project Starline “out of the lab” and bringing it to the workplace – and that gives you a hint of cost and initial use.

But Google and HP probably to want their technology to reach as large a market as possible, and as with all technology, costs will surely come down over time.

This is no VR headset

This also is not Oculus, the VR headset that takes you into an immersive world, or Apple Vision, which costs $3,500 to $4,000.

Instead of feeling inside of a 3D-generated room as with Oculus, with fake hands and slightly pixelated view – which after a while gives you a weird dizzy feeling – Starlink is more like a vision from the computer beaming into your actual space.

It feels like you are speaking to a person in a room. Even the subtleties of human interaction have been factored in.

And the sound moves as you move your head, in the same way the latest spatial headphones do.

At a time when many companies are getting fed up with apps such as Zoom and Teams – particularly dozens of faces in little boxes on a screen, struggling to keep focused – this could be a game-changer.

But how soon we see it opened up outside the workplace could be the biggest factor in its success.

Published: May 14, 2024, 12:20 PM