October provided us a glimpse into the future of 3D/holographic meetings from Meta, Google, and Cisco. All three companies shared details on the next generation of collaborative meetings. Princess Leia would be impressed.
Videoconferencing technology has come a long way. It’s truly remarkable. Almost every phone, laptop, and tablet has a built-in camera; apps have advanced features such as virtual backgrounds, transcription, and translation. We have seen tremendous improvements in resolution, and newer AI technologies have improved both the audio and video experience. All of this technology has never been more accessible, often free for casual users.
At one time, describing a meeting as “face-to-face meetings” meant in-person vs. telephonic. Videoconferencing confused that distinction, and suddenly face-to-face meetings are possible without physically meeting. During the pandemic, it became popular to use videoconferencing for all sorts of in-person activities, such as hiring and firing or attending weddings and funerals. While video is certainly powerful and effective, there’s no denying that online fidelity isn’t the same as being there. That may never change, but the gap will continue to shrink.
Google and Cisco believe the right equipment can elevate video meetings, so the participant experience is much closer to in-person meetings. Meta has a different angle and wants to improve virtual meetings to be as good or better than in-person meetings.
Let’s start with Meta. As we know, the company is currently pivoting to the metaverse. It created Horizon Workrooms as a stage to attract business use cases. The basic problem with it, and the metaverse in general, is that it’s not quite ready.
It’s the classic chicken and egg situation. The metaverse has no users, so no one is building it, but it has no one building it because there’s no users. Zuckerberg is attempting to break this paradox by investing heavily into it before the users arrive.
Uber was a revolutionary app, but it could not exist until we first invented/built smartphones, GPS, broadband wireless internet, Google Maps, and more. For the metaverse to really work, we need to invent a lot of things including extraordinary, low-cost virtual reality (VR) goggles.
As metaverse technology gets better and cheaper, it will accommodate more use cases. One of those early use cases will be meetings. Businesses will fund the metaverse-accessing goggles if they perceive an ROI. Many assume the metaverse will be all about games and entertainment, but its initial use cases will be aimed at (and funded by) enterprises. During the pandemic we killed the notion that “work is a place.” If work is truly an activity and not a place, then a virtual place should be perfectly suitable.
That’s why Microsoft’s recent move to embrace Meta’s metaverse is so intriguing. Microsoft announced it will bring Mesh for Microsoft Teams to Meta Quest devices. It’s a big positive move for both companies. Meta gains a killer app, and Microsoft gets full access to Meta’s huge investments, including the Quest headsets. Quest also announced new, more powerful headsets. Quest goggles get better with each generation, but we need a lot more generations to get them into the mainstream. Microsoft is also bringing its suite of 365 applications to the Quest goggles.
Microsoft backing and bringing Teams to the Metaverse is significant , and gives Meta’s efforts a lot more credibility and potential. Though I still doubt it will have much of an impact this decade. But when it does arrive, it’s going to be virtually glorious.
Project Starline is Google’s latest video experiment. It is a high-end meeting room solution that allows for 3D face-to-face meetings. The technology behind Project Starline is impressive. Google shared it in a published paper
. It adjusts the image based on the viewer’s angle and position. It also uses spatial audio techniques to ensure sounds appear to come from the position of the source. The systems utilize multiple cameras for video and tracking, a mic array, stereo speakers, and numerous infrared sensors. Each pod generates seven video streams, and a 256 Kbps audio stream at 44.1 kHz.
Google’s Project Starline is a bit of a surprise, but it’s reasonable that Google is looking for new revenue sources. It’s becoming clear that Android can’t slow the iPhone, Google's advertising business is under scrutiny by antitrust regulators around the globe, and its preferred search status with Apple is also at risk. Meanwhile, Google Meet has been a runaway success during the pandemic.
Cisco takes a different approach to 3D meetings. Meta is going VR/goggles, Google is using high-end booths, and Cisco is embracing AR. I was able to experience Cisco’s Hologram technology last year when first announced and again this year at its recent Webex Open House. The Cisco version is optimized around sharing content, such as a physical or 3D projected image.
Cisco’s hologram is indeed immersive. My host showed me various physical and virtual objects I could view from different angles. At one point, I was shown a ball, and when he threw it at me, I attempted to catch it. Oops. It’s possible to play catch with a virtual ball, but physical balls still get blocked by the far end camera lens.
Both Google and Cisco are rolling out these solutions to selected enterprises for trials, but neither has made its products generally available. That’s reasonable, as this technology remains very expensive. Neither Cisco nor Google has shared prices on the equipment as they don’t expect this generation of the gear will be taken to market.
The latest version of the Cisco solution uses Magic Leap’s newest AR glasses but is designed to work with multiple headsets. The key is the 3D panel that Cisco has designed and produced. It contains numerous cameras and sensors, but unlike the Google solution, only one panel is required. One person can present an object, say a product prototype, and the others can view and manipulate it remotely using AR glasses. The Cisco approach builds on the Webex platform and takes it to a new level with augmented reality.
Of course, there’s the next generation of video meetings, and (as usual) it will be all about the hardware. Collaborative meetings are a natural driver of this technology as the use case is familiar and proven. 3D holographic meetings are coming, but the price/value isn’t there yet for mainstream adoption. Until then, we need to make the most of 2D technologies such as HD video and e-boards.
Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.