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This is the craziest thing Google announced at I/O, and people can’t stop talking about it

May 19th, 2021 at 6:49 PM
Google Project Starline

At this point, those of us who cover technology for a living are pretty used to demos and product showcases that promise magic, some revolutionary new breakthrough, some boundary-pushing leap forward that promises to put a dent in the universe. Hyperbole is de rigueur for Silicon Valley tech giants like Google — even though, sometimes, the breathless tease arguably turns out to, well, be warranted. A good example of this is Google’s Project Starline, a new video chat system that was unveiled at the search giant’s annual I/O conference this week.

Suffice it to say, the presentation blew people away, and the whole thing looks so magical and impressive that I need one yesterday. It’s the kind of thing that certainly would have made the past year, dealing with the inconveniences of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot more bearable.

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So what is this thing, exactly? “Imagine looking through a sort of magic window, and through that window, you see another person, life-size and in three dimensions,” a company blog post from Google vice president Clay Bavor explains. “You can talk naturally, gesture and make eye contact.”

He followed up via Twitter with a summary that this system — which is like a video chat display on steroids, in that what you see is actually a 3D representation of the other person, such that it feels like they’re right there in front of you — has been years in the making. Think of it like a magic window, he explains, one that brings families, friends, and coworkers together, even when they’re cities or countries apart.

To make this video chat system possible, Bavor’s post continues, Google is applying “research in computer vision, machine learning, spatial audio and real-time compression. We’ve also developed a breakthrough light field display system that creates a sense of volume and depth that can be experienced without the need for additional glasses or headsets.”

If you check out that video above, you’ll get a sense of what wowed people so much with this presentation. The project is still in the early stages, according to Bavor, so don’t expect to see this in wide use anytime soon. Trial deployments are planned with “enterprise partners” later this year.

“To start that journey, we’ve spent thousands of hours testing Project Starline within Google as we connected colleagues between the Bay Area, New York and Seattle,” the Project Starline blog post continues. “We’ve also been conducting demos with select enterprise partners in areas like healthcare and media to get early feedback on the technology and its applications.”

Meantime, here’s a sampling of some of the reaction on Twitter from people who were blown away by the technology and the feeling of presence it creates:

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Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.

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