Ever notice how difficult it is to maintain eye contact in a video call? You can thank your webcam placement for that. Laptop webcams are too low for eye contact, and desktop monitors have their webcams placed too high for it. Unless you want to carry around a laptop riser with you, you’re just going to have to accept a bit of emotional distance in your Zoom meetings. That is unless your office goes in on Steelcase and Logitech’s new telecommuting pod, Project Ghost.
With fancy proprietary digital hologram solutions like Google Starline or Proto either still in development or prohibitively expensive, it’s easy to write off video call booths as being something that remains in the distant future. But at least one answer to the woes of video calls—eye contact—has actually been around since the 1950s, when the teleprompter started to make its way into event spaces and newsrooms. By reflecting text from a horizontal display onto a one-way mirror covering a camera lens, teleprompters allow speakers to read scripts aloud while making eye contact with a camera.
Project Ghost applies the same principle to video calls, and then some. Rather than use fancy video tricks to simulate holograms, it instead seeks to make calls feel more natural by focusing on physical comfort, a clear background, and eye contact. Taking a call in Project Ghost involves walking into a booth, sitting in a half-lounge with a cushy reclining seat, and looking at a projection bounced off an OLED screen through a 21:9 slit (think the aspect ratio at your local movie theater) in a wall that hides any teleprompter-esque guts. Behind the projection is a 4K Logitech Rally camera, with microphones and speakers built into the wall in front of you.
The result is that whoever you’re calling shows up as a surprisingly realistic, life-size image, all by using what are primarily five-year-old guts that can be upgraded with ease and that don’t require you to shell out five figures or wait for some far-off future. It helps that behind callers who are using the Ghost is a black fabric mat that provides both a clean background and a little bit of soundproofing, which helps sells the illusion that the person you’re talking to is on the other side of the wall, rather than in a faraway office. Benefits like the clear background only apply if the person you’re calling also has a Ghost, but by keeping the device relatively affordable and upgradeable, Logitech has made that a somewhat realistic proposition.
We’ve known Project Ghost has been coming since January, although we’ve been hesitant to pay it much heed until now given its status as a concept. Having finally tried it ourselves, though, the thing seems to have cracked the code that competitors like the $20,000 Cisco Telepresence kits haven’t. It successfully fills a “good enough” niche that’s been left surprisingly vacant until now.
Logitech’s long been a key player when it comes to keyboards and mice, but its videoconferencing tech really took off during the pandemic. Project Ghost is the company’s attempt to remain relevant as many companies move from a remote work culture into a hybrid work one. As such, it want to feel like an attraction of sorts without becoming luxury gear that the average person won’t be allowed to use.
“Companies need to earn their employees’ commute,” a Logitech spokesperson told me as he led me to a demo unit of the Ghost in Steelcase’s Manhattan office. “A lot of employees have better setups at home than they do in the office.”
The Ghost is about the size of a small huddle room, and the idea is that a company could affordably plop one into an otherwise unused part of its floor space. Employees could take calls with other offices or remote workers by simply walking into it.
“Cisco Telepresence and other similar solutions are so advanced that they create a sort of class system in the office, where only the most senior employees get to use them,” a Logitech rep said. “We want Ghost to be accessible.”
That said, you’re not going to plop the half-bath-sized Ghost into your personal office quite yet. But that doesn’t mean remote workers won’t get some use out of it.
“Because Ghost uses an existing Logitech webcam, it works with Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, anything a laptop would,” Logitech told me. That interoperability means any colleagues you call will be able to at least see you clearly looking at the camera, even if they don’t have a Ghost. It also means it could be helpful in something like a one-to-many web conference, and not just one-to-one calls.
I tested the Ghost by chatting with a Steelcase representative who sat in her own Ghost in the company’s Grand Rapids office.
The rep showed up so clearly and so focused on me that I remarked that she almost looked 3D, despite the booth having no 3D effect to it. Specific facial features seemed to have depth, which might have simply been an aftereffect of the pure black background and the eye contact causing me to feel closer to her. Unlike on calls with my coworkers in their personal offices, there were no FOV disparities, no green screens, no messy backgrounds, and no virtual backgrounds with weird artifacting around coworkers’ heads.
The illusion wasn’t quite perfect. How often do you chat with someone through a slit in a wall? But it was comfortable and natural in a way that staring above my monitor to make eye contact with my webcam, rather than looking at who I’m talking to, is not.
Project Ghost is still a concept, so certain design elements aren’t quite finalized. According to the rep I was meeting with, the design is “70 or 80 percent complete.” There’s no desk in front of the user for referring to notes or controlling a laptop, and the booth is only semi-private, with slits in the side and an open entryway. Logitech is aware of both of these concerns and said they might be addressed by the time units ship but didn’t make any promises. There might actually be multiple versions of the Ghost—Logitech told me it’s considering both more open booths and private booths. Still, it has yet to address concerns like group-to-group meetings. Instead, Steelcase is working on Microsoft Teams Signature Rooms, which function more like your typical conference room but centered around a screen and camera as the primary focus rather than an afterthought.
Despite being a concept, Logitech has no plans to simply woo the press and potential clients with the Ghost and then never bring it to market. The company told me it’s already speaking to clients, who should receive their units starting in the fall. Plans for early clients include major corporations like (but not necessarily including) Microsoft or Apple, as well as telemedicine providers.
While the Ghost is comfortable and seemingly more realistic than other options, I will admit I found it a bit odd that Logitech was pitching it as a way to facilitate a return-to-office, given that it’s about taking remote calls. There’s certainly a place for it in a hybrid workspace, but when I asked the company about a potential home version, the rep showing me the Ghost expressed interest. The key point in a potential home version would be to be able to keep a camera at eye level and perhaps put a soundproofed background behind the speaker. While a home teleprompter could be a bit much for most, other companies have introduced concept webcams that can attach to a monitor’s screen.
The big question is whether companies will go for Project Ghost. Steelcase already has a strong presence in office furniture sales and can likely help get Logitech’s foot in the door, but the huddle-sized pod is a lot of space to dedicate to one-on-one calls. The strength here would be the price and beating others to market. Logitech didn’t give me any numbers but strongly implied that the Ghost will be cheaper than other solutions (leaning more towards the four-figure end of the spectrum than the five-figure one) which will probably be one of its biggest selling points. Unlike its competitors, the Ghost’s lateral use of existing tech should be “good enough” for most and would position it to take a strong and early lead in the hybrid video call pod space.
Meanwhile, competitors like Starline are impressing with advanced gimmicks like faux-3D, but are still iterating, as we saw at Google I/O this week. While these technical powerhouse booths are still working towards being realistically budgeted and polished, you might find yourself taking a work call in a Logitech Ghost (or whatever the final name is) by the end of the year.
Want more of Gizmodo’s consumer electronics picks? Check out our guides to the best phones, best laptops, best cameras, best televisions, best printers, and best tablets. And if you want to learn about the next big thing, see our guide to everything we know about the iPhone 15.