Google’s Project Starline is unbelievable

This tech can fool your brain

Have you ever seen a hologram in movies or shows like Star Wars or Star Trek: Discovery? Years ago, holograms were a technology that I thought would be everywhere by now; however, that’s not the case. While Google isn’t making a phone or tablet with hologram tech, the Project Starline experience felt like we’re making progress towards this future.

To be clear, Project Starline isn’t hologram technology, but Google describes it as a magic window where you can talk, gesture and make eye contact with another life-sized person in three dimensions. It uses advanced AI to build a realistic model of the person you’re talking to in real-time and projects it onto a light field display that offers both volume and depth. It sounds like science fiction, but it feels like the person is right there in front of you, and the scale of the display makes it feel super life-like.

At Google I/O 2023, MobileSyrup’s Brad Bennett and I had the chance to try out a new version of the technology. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to film any video footage, just an audio recording of the conversation and a video of our reactions after leaving the session.

Dean’s experience

The experience is difficult to describe. The Google employee reached out to hand me fruit and to fist bump, and it truly looked like he was reaching out and that I could actually touch him. Essentially, Starline creates an avatar of the person you’re talking with and uses light to project it, similar to a hologram. What pulled me out of the experience’s immersion is the artifacting around the other person’s avatar that makes it look fuzzy around the edges. In some ways, if the artifacts weren’t there, the experience would be almost too realistic. I was told that people start to associate with the artifacts, and people are very forgiving of them. Further, Google said that it doesn’t seem to interfere with the ability to connect and feel with the person on the other end. I was pretty much in agreement with this sentiment.

When I entered the room, the first thing I said was, “It’s almost like VR but like with my own eyes.”

As I spoke with the Google employee, I learned that this could connect with people across the world and could allow users around the globe to connect with co-workers, family, friends and more. Something like this could have been incredibly helpful during the pandemic when loneliness was at an all-time low.

I thought the experience was pretty trippy, and I really can see how this can evolve into something useful and loved if there’s ever a consumer-focused model. Project Starline can really change how people communicate with one another in the future. And the size of this latest model was pretty manageable and could fit in most homes.

Brad’s adventure

I’m a self-described tech skeptic that’s getting increasingly cynical with each year, but Project Starline was one of the most mind-bending experiences I’ve ever had interfacing with technology.

To set the stage a little, the day before, Dean and I were walking around the press area before the I/O keynote, and we ran into a few members of the MKBHD crew walking out of their Starline demo with (for lack of a better word) stars in their eyes. I was skeptical, but each one of them seemed to be almost catching their breath in awe as they walked out, which piqued my curiosity.

The next day, Dean and I were waiting in a conference room with eight other members of the global tech press to try out Starline and one by one, everyone came back with the same starry eyes I’d seen before. And these weren’t YouTubers, but rather tech industry veterans that days earlier had shown me pictures they had with an extremely young Bill Gates. It was safe to say that these guys have seen it all, and Starline was making them giggle and gasp like children.

As my turn finally came, the GM of Starline, Andrew Narker, came and walked me toward the room while explaining the intricacies of what I was about to experience. All of this was mostly small talk, but it gave me time to look at him in real life, which was important because I was about to see the craziest AI avatar of him in the demo.

“After my demo, I walked out of the room and felt the urge to go outside and feel comforted by the reality of nature.”

I walked in, the screen lit up, Narker sat down in front of me, and my jaw dropped. I think I also started giggling, maybe there was a tear in my eye, but I was so taken aback by the reality of this machine I was at a loss for words. I could look into his eyes, I could move my head to the left and look around him and see the sides of his head as if he was sitting in the same space as me. It’s almost impossible to comprehend, but it looks like he was sitting four feet in front of me.

Things got even more insane from there when he grabbed an apple and held it out for me to try and take. Obviously, I couldn’t, but I instinctively reached for it only to grab thin air. I’d compare it to the Nintendo 3DS’ 3D effect, but perfect in almost every way.

It was an extraordinary feeling that truly fooled my brain into believing that Narker was with me. Having tech fool my mind like this had only happened once before in VR when I was playing Flight Simulator. I was flying and turned so the sun was at my back, and as the shadows crawled down my cockpit, I swear the back of my neck felt the warm glow of the virtual sun. It was a really strange experience to have your senses fooled by technology, and Starline felt the same way.

The only downside was what Dean mentioned above. There are artifacts around the edges of the people, and when you move your fingers, Starline has a hard time rebuilding them flawlessly in real-time, so you might see a few glitches and wavy edges with fast movements or around hair. However, the face was rock solid, and since that’s where I spent most of my time looking during my conversation with Narker, I really felt fooled by the virtual recreation of him.

After my demo, I walked out of the room and felt the urge to go outside and feel comforted by the reality of nature. Things got even weirder when I looked down the hall, and Narker walked out of his room and made his way over to me with a grin and extended hand to shake. Another nice gesture to help me feel grounded in the real world. It’s very strange, but that handshake is burned in my brain because I truly felt like he and I had been through something that bonded us.

I was thankful for the handshake, but truthfully I could have used a hug.

Where it goes from here?

Google unveiled Project Starline back in 2019, but since then, the company hasn’t been standing still. Beforehand, Google’s Project Starline was available as a booth, but the company has made the product more accessible and consumer-friendly by shrinking it down since then. Now it’s roughly the size of a big TV with some cameras attached to the sides.

Currently, Google is working with Salesforce, T-Mobile and WeWork as part of its early access program to gather real-world data on how Project Starline can work in the workforce.