It’s a strange time to have an office job. Buildings are empty a lot of the time, artificial intelligence is fighting to be a better employee than you, and now, even the comforting normality of video calls is being challenged.
Both major companies and startups have a new goal: who can make the most realistic video call? Through the use of spaceship-like booths, Google, Logitech and a host of competitors are designing ‘pods’ that can make a video call feel like a face-to-face conversation.
These usually pricey and large pods are decked-out in technology, utilising everything from AI to high-definition cameras and even lighting and visual effects to remove the many miles between you and the person on the other end.
But, other than Barbara from finance’s bad microphone and a few laggy videos, is the video conferencing industry in this much need of drastic repair? And is there a point where a video becomes too realistic?
Meet the competition
There is an ungodly amount of companies designing video conferencing booths, with more joining every week. However, when it comes to technical prowess, three options stand out right now: Google’s Starline, Framery, and the somewhat ominous-sounding Logitech Ghost.
In typical Google style, Starline has taken the video conference idea to a whole new level, opening it up and cramming as much technology down its throat as possible.
This is great in the sense that it is truly breaking boundaries, creating entirely new technology and a video conferencing experience that is unrivalled in its ability to mess with your mind.
However, by flexing its technical prowess, Google has caused two, potentially three problems. Firstly, there is no clear date in sight for this technology to hit the market, and while it has been tested and reviewed, it is likely to be a long time before it finds its way into an office.
This also means it is likely to be oh so very expensive when it does become available, limiting itself to only the techiest and richest of offices, ready to experience cutting-edge innovation.
Finally, it raises the question, when is a video conference too good? Those who have spent time using the Starline say it feels like the person is actually in the room, and it does so in a highly noticeable way.
To create the effect of sitting in a room with someone, Project Starline uses advanced AI to build a photorealistic model of the person you’re speaking to. This is projected onto a light field display which, in theory, makes a lifelike image on the person’s screen.
The problem here is that it creates a sense of the uncanny valley. A term frequently used to describe robots, animatronics and other human-like creations, the valley describes the relationship between the human-like appearance of a robotic object and the emotional response it creates.
The more human-like something looks, the more familiar we are with it. However, there comes a point where this familiarity comes crashing down into a sense of uneasiness and discomfort. This occurs when something is almost human, but there are clear signs that it’s not. Think realistic robots, or in this case, a 3D image of a person on a video call.
By playing with 3D holograms, AI and the way your eyes work, Project Starline also relies on a perfect set-up and just one person being in the video call, opening up a Pandora’s Box of potential issues.
Taking things back to basics
This is where both Logitech and Framery come in. Both companies have a similar idea: take the video call format… and make it fancy and more personable.
There are no 3D effects, artificial intelligence or clever tricks. Instead, both of these companies utilise high-quality cameras and microphones, black backgrounds and smart positioning to make your video call realistic.
"The pod combines an isolated interior with a true-to-life projection, enabling the brain to build a 3D representation of the other meeting participants," Samu Hällfors, CEO of Framery told BBC Science Focus.
"Projections are captured, unaltered, and transmitted at the highest possible quality, while strategically placed mirrors capture and display direct eye contact. This enables a high degree of social presence, preventing the adverse effects of CGI."
This is all technology that exists right now and is similar to what Project Ghost operates with. Nothing is being invented or even revolutionised but instead, they are just bringing it all together in a way that makes a video call feel a whole lot more real.
I had the chance to experience Framery’s video conference experience. A giant darkened and sound-proofed booth, it feels closed off from the world. A giant portrait screen sits across and two very bright lights shine down on you.
It feels somewhat unnatural at first, but as I sat and chatted to someone hundreds of miles away in Norway, it all felt pretty normal. The high-quality microphones, the fancy cameras and the darkened rooms, while somewhat ominous and intense, really did make it feel like he was sitting across from me without playing 3D games with my eyes or trying to trick me with AI.
Logitech’s Project Ghost operates much the same way, a booth fitted with high-tech cameras, screens, microphones and a very posh black background makes for a video call that is surprisingly realistic.
The two companies do take slightly different routes: Logitech opts for cosy sofas and the feeling of being in a living room, whereas Framery is all about shutting yourself away from the world in a blacked-out, completely silent room.
What both focus on is making the video call feel as much like a real-life face-to-face conversation as possible.
"What sets Framery apart is it brings that much-wanted feeling of human connection to a virtual meeting. By drowning out all background distractions, Framry aims to bring to life a feeling and sensation you don’t get with a virtual meeting", says Hällfors.
Is this the future of video conferencing?
Google’s Starline, while an impressive display of technology, is both a long way away and unlikely to be an affordable option, but can companies like Logitech and Framery change the video conferencing world?
Sure, there is absolutely no doubt that this is a much better version of the video call experience, a great version even. But both models exceed the £10,000 mark and realistically, any serious competitor will as well.
Like offices trying to embrace the metaverse, or augmented reality meetings, it is hard to see many offices happy to splurge on this kind of technology.
Alex is a staff writer at BBC Science Focus. He has worked for a number of brands covering technology and science with an interest in consumer tech, robotics, AI and the often generally wonderful and weird world of future technology.
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