I sat on a comfy seat, in a little booth facing a life-size person who looked like they were encased inside the glass wall in front of me. I smiled, I chatted. I felt like I was having a therapy session. Project Ghost, a vision of how office telepresence furniture could make for convincing video chats, was subtly and surprisingly effective.
A half a year ago, I tried something similar with an experimental, glasses-free holographic 3D chat in Google’s Project Starline. A similar vision for a future of realistically intimate conversations at a distance without needing a pair of VR/AR glasses, Starline used a light field display and an array of custom depth-sensing cameras. Logitech and Steelcase’s Project Ghost just uses a selection of off-the-shelf webcam parts and a custom-made piece of office furniture.
Project Starline and Project Ghost are both aiming for lifesize, lifelike chats between people, but Starline’s chat looks 3D, holographic, as if they’re sitting right across from me. Ghost’s video chat looks like someone is inside the booth I’m facing, in 2D. Starline felt more like science fiction, but Ghost’s off-the-shelf tech build is trying to make something similar happen faster for more businesses.
I first wrote about Project Ghost earlier this year; The initiative, which is trying to figure out how physical offices can better adapt to a world where workers are frequently virtual or hybrid, is trying to find an affordable (for offices) way to build out a system that’s better than a regular webcam and monitor and can maybe substitute better for live in-person meetings.
I was skeptical, but Google’s Project Starline already convinced me of how eerily real these types of life-size chats can feel. What surprised me about Project Ghost is how some of what works with Starline can happen, even without the 3D effect. Just having a lifesize video feed that makes actual eye contact works really well, too.
Project Ghost works thanks to a simple stage magic illusion concept called Pepper’s Ghost. It’s just a projected display onto a half-mirror, with a webcam nestled behind and out of sight exactly where the video chat person’s face is. It allows me to look at the person and also at the same time be looking straight at their eyes, with none of the weird slightly off-angle aspects of conference room or laptop video chats.
Most of us already do just fine with the laptops and other setups we already have, but Project Ghost did feel just a bit more normal. I wanted to slip into a confessional mode, like I was having a therapy session — the comfy chair probably helped.
Project Ghost is a setup that Steelcase is planning on selling, using Logitech’s existing Rally Plus office webcam hardware, at custom-order prices that could be somewhere around $20,000. The target market would be any corporation looking for a cozy, improved one-on-one telepresence booth, or possibly areas like healthcare. It would be a killer setup for remote media appearances, where interviews could also be recorded with perfect eye contact.
But of course, what I’d really like to see is this experience translated into smaller, more affordable tech — like, say, my home monitor or laptop. But that may not happen; according to the team that created Project Ghost, the effect works best at full scale, not shrunken down. And it’s apparently not a good fit at the moment for conference rooms, which seems like the obvious place to set up this type of tech in the future.
It may sound totally impractical, or unnecessary. But all I know is I found it weirdly compelling.