As companies settle into a new normal of hybrid and distributed work, remote communication technology remains critical for connecting and collaborating with colleagues. While this technology has improved, the core user experience often falls short: conversation can feel stilted, attention can be difficult to maintain, and usage can be fatiguing.
|Project Starline renders people at natural scale on a 3D display and enables natural eye contact.
At Google I/O 2021 we announced Project Starline, a technology project that combines advances in hardware and software to create a remote communication experience that feels like you’re together, even when you’re thousands of miles apart. This perception of co-presence is created by representing users in 3D at natural scale, enabling eye contact, and providing spatially accurate audio. But to what extent do these technological innovations translate to meaningful, observable improvement in user value compared to traditional video conferencing?
In this blog we share results from a number of studies across a variety of methodologies, finding converging evidence that Project Starline outperforms traditional video conferencing in terms of conversation dynamics, video meeting fatigue, and attentiveness. Some of these results were previously published while others we are sharing for the first time as preliminary findings.
Improved conversation dynamics
In our qualitative studies, users often describe conversations in Project Starline as “more natural.” However, when asked to elaborate, many have difficulty articulating this concept in a way that fully captures their experience. Because human communication relies partly on unconscious processes like nonverbal behavior, people might have a hard time reflecting on these processes that are potentially impacted by experiencing a novel technology. To address this challenge, we conducted a series of behavioral lab experiments to shed light on what “more natural” might mean for Project Starline. These experiments employed within-subjects designs in which participants experienced multiple conditions (e.g., meeting in Project Starline vs. traditional videoconferencing) in randomized order. This allowed us to control for between-subject differences by comparing how the same individual responded to a variety of conditions, thus increasing statistical power and reducing the sample size necessary to detect statistical differences (sample sizes in our behavioral experiments range from ~ 20 to 30).
In one study, preliminary data suggest Project Starline improves conversation dynamics by increasing rates of turn-taking. We recruited pairs of participants who had never met each other to have unstructured conversations in both Project Starline and traditional video conferencing. We analyzed the audio from each conversation and found that Project Starline facilitated significantly more dynamic “back and forth” conversations compared to traditional video conferencing. Specifically, participants averaged about 2-3 more speaker hand-offs in Project Starline conversations compared to those in traditional video conferencing across a two minute subsample of their conversation (a uniform selection at the end of each conversation to help standardize for interpersonal rapport). Participants also rated their Starline conversations as significantly more natural (“smooth,” “easy,” “not awkward”), higher in quality, and easier to recognize when it was their turn to speak compared to conversations using traditional video conferencing.
In another study, participants had conversations with a confederate in both Project Starline and traditional video conferencing. We recorded these conversations to analyze select nonverbal behaviors. In Project Starline, participants were more animated, using significantly more hand gestures (+43%), head nods (+26%), and eyebrow movements (+49%). Participants also reported a significantly better ability to perceive and convey nonverbal cues in Project Starline than in traditional video conferencing. Together with the turn-taking results, these data help explain why conversations in Project Starline may feel more natural.
|We recorded participants to quantify their nonverbal behaviors and found that they were more animated in Project Starline (left) compared to traditional video conferencing (right).
Reduced video meeting fatigue
A well-documented challenge of video conferencing, especially within the workplace, is video meeting fatigue. The causes of video meeting fatigue are complex, but one possibility is that video communication is cognitively taxing because it becomes more difficult to convey and interpret nonverbal behavior. Considering previous findings that suggested Project Starline might improve nonverbal communication, we examined whether video meeting fatigue might also be improved (i.e., reduced) compared to traditional video conferencing.
Our study found preliminary evidence that Project Starline indeed reduces video meeting fatigue. Participants held 30-minute mock meetings in Project Starline and traditional video conferencing. Meeting content was standardized across participants using an exercise adapted from academic literature that emulates key elements of a work meeting, such as brainstorming and persuasion. We then measured video meeting fatigue via the Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue (ZEF) Scale. Additionally, we measured participants’ reaction times on a complex cognitive task originally used in cognitive psychology. We repurposed this task as a proxy for video meeting fatigue based on the assumption that more fatigue would lead to slower reaction times. Participants reported significantly less video meeting fatigue on the ZEF Scale (-31%) and had faster reaction times (-12%) on the cognitive task after using Project Starline compared to traditional video conferencing.
Another challenge with video conferencing is focusing attention on the meeting at hand, rather than on other browser windows or secondary devices.
In our earlier study on nonverbal behavior, we included an exploratory information-retention task. We asked participants to write as much as they could remember about each conversation (one in Project Starline, and one in traditional video conferencing). We found that participants wrote 28% more in this task (by character count) after their conversation in Project Starline. This could be because they paid closer attention when in Project Starline, or possibly that they found conversations in Project Starline to be more engaging.
To explore the concept of attentiveness further, we conducted a study in which participants wore eye-tracking glasses. This allowed us to calculate the percentage of time participants spent focusing on their conversation partner’s face, an important source of social information in human interaction. Participants had a conversation with a confederate in Project Starline, traditional video conferencing, and in person. We found that participants spent a significantly higher proportion of time looking at their conversation partner’s face in Project Starline (+14%) than they did in traditional video conferencing. In fact, visual attentiveness in Project Starline mirrored that of the in-person condition: participants spent roughly the same proportion of time focusing on their meeting partner’s face in the Project Starline and in-person conditions.
User value in real meetings
The lab-based, experimental approach used in the studies above allows for causal inference while minimizing confounding variables. However, one limitation of these studies is that they are low in external validity — that is, they took place in a lab environment, and the extent to which their results extend to the real world is unclear. Thus, we studied actual users within Google who used Project Starline for their day-to-day work meetings and collected their feedback.
An internal pilot revealed that users derive meaningful value from using Project Starline. We used post-meeting surveys to capture immediate feedback on individual meetings, longer monthly surveys to capture holistic feedback on the experience, and conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with a subset of users. We evaluated Project Starline on concepts such as presence, nonverbal behavior, attentiveness, and personal connection. We found strong evidence that Project Starline delivered across these four metrics, with over 87% of participants expressing that their meetings in Project Starline were better than their previous experiences with traditional video conferencing.
Together, these findings offer a compelling case for Project Starline’s value to users: improved conversation dynamics, reduced video meeting fatigue, and increased attentiveness. Participants expressed that Project Starline was a significant improvement over traditional video conferencing in highly controlled lab experiments, as well as when they used Project Starline for their actual work meetings. We’re excited to see these findings converge across multiple methodologies (surveys, qualitative interviews, experiments) and measurements (self-report, behavioral, qualitative), and we’re eager to continue exploring the implications of Project Starline on human interaction.
We’d like to thank Melba Tellez, Eric Baczuk, Jinghua Zhang, Matthew DuVall, and Travis Miller for contributing to visual assets and illustrations.