In early 2011, the world was a slightly different place. Google+ and Google Hangouts weren’t out yet. And during this brief window of time, Google Creative Lab brought on creative studio Berg to work on a device—a physical product “encapsulating Google voice/video chat services.” They called it the Connection Box, or Connbox for short. The entire story, diligently documented on Berg’s site, is a prolonged glimpse into the logical process behind cutting-edge industrial design.
Berg started by asking “what materials make up video.” That included traditional ideas like lenses but also those esoteric physical restraints like field of view. My favorite part of the project is probably a demo they generated when playing with this idea, showing a camera’s field of view growing beyond the lens—a concept that’s so difficult to explain but immediately graspable when presented in the right light.
Around this time, Berg began challenging video-conferencing convention. They began exploring omnipresent chat solutions—less calls than open windows from one place to another. And they came up with a motto—"places not faces"—with the goal of capturing a panoramic environment rather than a couple of picture-in-picture boxed heads. They also conceived prototypes to solve issues of eye-contact in video chatting to make it feel more personal, from in-screen cameras to panoramic mirrors that would wrap around your webcam.
Finally, they began prototyping the Connbox itself in a series of prototypes. The device is fascinating, if unfinished. Its onscreen UI is driven by physical interactions. A lever closes a curtain, muting and blocking a speaker. A knob flips through filters. Another button, when pressed, seemingly ejects an icon onto the screen. And the camera is easily removable, offering the chance to capture a video conferencing perspective beyond your own face. Functionally speaking, this prototype isn’t so much different than Facetiming on a phone, but it was built with another idea in mind: Legibility, or having each function presented in a clear physical form through "beautiful seams."
The shame is, the project was scrapped before Berg finished. We never get to see the marriage of “places not faces” with a function-forward appliance—well, save for a one-off peak. This single concept sketch reveals a product that plays on Google’s Circles, spinning your friends in an actual wheel. Could such a device also capture a panorama of your own space? And could it immerse you in someone else’s office space? I guess we’ll never know.