Microsoft has announced that it will begin rolling out its metaverse early next year, in the form of Mesh for Microsoft Teams. The news comes just days after Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote address at Facebook Connects 2021 – see our full report.
Obviously keen not to be left out of the conversation, Microsoft shared the news that in the first half of 2022, users will be able to access Mesh on HoloLens 2, VR headsets, mobile phones, tablets or PCs, aiming, ‘To make collaboration in the ‘metaverse’ personal and fun’.
The service will utilise mixed-reality capabilities – remember this is the company behind Hololens – to allow people in different physical locations to join collaborative and shared holographic experiences with the productivity tools of Microsoft Teams, where people can join virtual meetings, send chats, collaborate on shared documents and more.
Effective and engaged
In a blog post by CTO John Roach, he revealed that during the global pandemic, “Microsoft productivity experts have observed two trends: remote workers are far more efficient than most business leaders ever imagined, and they miss each other”.
Furthermore, ongoing studies in Microsoft’s research organisation find that, “People feel more present and engaged in meetings when everyone turns on their video cameras,” but it’s not always convenient to do so. The answer proposed by Mesh is virtual avatars with facial expressions, as well as gestures.
Jeff Teper, corporate VP of Microsoft 365 said that, “These tools are all ways to signal we’re in the same virtual space, we’re one team, we’re one group, and help take the formality down a peg and the engagement up a peg. We’ve seen that those tools have accomplished both goals of helping a team be more effective and also helping individuals be more engaged.”
Microsoft Technical Fellow Alex Kipman said, “As a company whose focus is on productivity, it’s something that customers are really asking us for, and it’s coupled with the vision of mixed reality that we’ve been working on for 12 years. It’s all coming together.”
Mesh for Teams will roll out with a set of pre-built immersive spaces to support a variety of contexts, from meetings to social mixers. Over time, organisations will be able to build custom immersive spaces.
From audio to avatars
Principal project manager Katie Kelly explained a little about how the technology might develop saying, “To start, we will take audio cues so as you talk your face will animate. You’ll also have animations that bring additional expressivity to the avatars. Your hands will move. There will be a feeling of presence even though it’s as simple as being able to take your audio and manifest that as facial expressions”.
That sounds some way behind the full hand tracking to be found in Meta/Oculus’ Horizon Workrooms, but Kelly explained, “That’s the first release. The ambition is to closely follow that with Microsoft’s plethora of AI technologies so that we can use the camera to insinuate where your mouth is and mimic your head and facial movements. The experience will continue to evolve over time as sensor technology improves across devices”.
Gateway to the metaverse
Roach observed in his post that not only is Mesh an enterprise tool – “It’s also a gateway to the metaverse”. He explained further saying, “Think of the metaverse as a new version – or a new vision – of the internet, one where people gather to communicate, collaborate and share with personal virtual presence on any device”.
According to Roach, Kipman’s vision for mixed reality throughout the last 12 years has always been a medium that moves people from solitary experiences – single person, single device – into content placed over the real world to create an environment fine-tuned for collaboration.
Building on the company’s work within the enterprise sector, the ambition is that Mesh will, ‘Allow organisations to create metaverses, persistent virtual worlds for people to collaborate, places that connect the physical world to the virtual world via digital twins of people, places and things’.