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Google is ready to commercially launch its Starline project. In a statement, the company says this video conferencing technology has passed the internal testing phase and will hit the market in 2025. It promises to take the video-calling experience to the next level.

Starline is a partnership between Google and HP that combines hardware and software. Google announced the project in 2021 during the Google I/O keynote session. The COVID pandemic was still in full swing, and many companies (and private individuals) embraced video conferencing. It seemed the right time to present such a technology, although things remained quiet for some time after that initial announcement.

At its inception, Google promised that Starline would be much more than ‘just’ video conferencing. The company dubbed the technology a ‘magic window’, making it seem as if participants in a meeting were all in the same room. That idea is alive and well in 2024. When Starline becomes generally available starting next year, it promises to achieve this kind of immediacy with the help of AI applications, 3D imagining, and speakers strategically placed in conference rooms.

Poly solutions for better audio/video

HP brings Poly technology to the table in this partnership. Poly was a company that provided advanced audio/video solutions for hybrid working. HP bought the outfit in 2022 for over three billion dollars. Its product suite is now part of the HP catalogue.

Tip: HP wants to be a one-stop shop for hybrid workloads

It’s not a bad idea for Google to seek such a partnership. After all, research shows that video and audio quality play a central role for users in videoconferencing. For example, the quality of webcam images affects perceived audio quality and vice versa.

The 2021 announcement did not mention a partnership with HP yet (which had not even bought Poly at the time). Starline then seemed to be about a dedicated booth for videoconferencing. In Google’s recent announcements, the company moved from those rather sterile-looking quarters to a more cosy space with lots of wood. This ‘living room environment’ is present in quite a few Google announcements these days.

Integrating into existing applications

Starline now seems primarily to involve technology that takes existing videoconferencing solutions to the next level and thus can be integrated with them. It is apparently not intended as a competitor to existing services. In its own statement, Google says Starline is usable in Zoom and its own Google Meet, among others. Microsoft Teams is conspicuously not mentioned by name, but that does not necessarily mean it cannot work with the technology.

Alex Cho, HP’s President of Personal Systems, insists that more than half of human communication happens through nonverbal cues such as body posture and facial expression. Starline then, aims to create the impression that conversation partners are all in the same room, making them forget there is a screen separating them (as well as distance). The more this experience of proximity can be simulated, the longer the attention span of conversation partners and the better their memory recall of what was being discussed, the idea goes.

Not for the average Joe-with-a-laptop

This also presents a challenge. If the promotional images are anything to go by, you still need quite a large screen to achieve the best results. That is to ensure participants are presented in life-size. The room should also come with advanced audio equipment -preferably from HP’s Poly series, supposedly. For the average Joe-with-a-laptop, who usually has to be content with seeing a series of small faces during a Zoom, Teams or Meet session while sitting in a cramped home office or office room, such luxury is out of the question.

That said, Starline seems like something primarily meant for boardrooms or dedicated videoconferencing rooms. In any case, Google employees have apparently already spent ‘thousands of hours’ working with it and are wildly enthusiastic.

It looks promising, but Google is by no means the first to propose making remote meetings more enervating. Videoconferencing solutions have existed for some time, although major developments have occurred in recent years, spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Virtual meetings in 3D environments

Earlier this year Microsoft started offering Mesh for Microsoft Teams. This service allows for holding meetings with avatars in 3D using Virtual Reality. Mesh is now built into Teams and available through existing subscriptions to Microsoft’s video call service. In addition, Mesh has been released for the Meta Quest app store.

Mark Zuckerberg’s company has been trying to get the ‘Metaverse’ off the ground for years. In this environment, virtual meetings can be organized, where digital avatars represent colleagues and other conversation participants. Microsoft’s idea operates on a similar principle.

Are such (semi-) virtual environments preferable to dedicated videoconferencing rooms or the old-fashioned teleconference from the home office? We doubt it. Fully virtual environments are an interesting novelty, but no one really wants to put on those heavy, clunky glasses or helmets and enter a virtual environment to talk to someone—or go through the trouble of creating one.

A phone call remains the more efficient option

The tech might be interesting to use in specific use cases or special events. But in day-to-day situations, a video call, an e-mail or -gasp!- a phone call is a lot more efficient. A while back, we reported Cisco had also opted for life-size classic 2D screens, but with higher resolutions, better integration with existing solutions and smoother participant interaction. Cisco went this route instead of using VR and 3D bells and whistles. Although the company later announced an application for Apple’s Vision Pro headset, oh well.

Google’s marketing of Starline as a way to elevate video conferencing to a higher level is probably a fine move. Conveniently, users can use tools that are probably already on their laptops anyway. And come to think of it, as CEO, one would make a much better impression towards guests and other C-level colleagues with a state-of-the-art conference room where the technology disappears into the background, rather than with those somewhat nerdy VR glasses.

Also read: Meta’s VP metaverse is optimistic: ‘The metaverse hype is dead’