Microsoft Teams users will soon be able to create their own animated avatars to meet with colleagues in virtual 3D environments, thanks to an upcoming integration of the company’s mixed reality platform, Mesh.
Mesh, unveiled by Microsoft earlier this year, provides tools for developing virtual 2D and 3D environments for collaboration and communication. To date, efforts have included the creation of a dedicated Mesh collaboration app for users of Microsoft’s VR headset HoloLens, as well as the integration of Mesh features – such as avatars – with AltSpaceVR, its social VR software. (Both are currently in preview.)
On Ignite, Microsoft discussed plans to integrate the mixed reality platform into Teams, its video conferencing and chat application that has 250 million users worldwide.
What is Mesh for Teams?
Basically, integration provides an alternative way for colleagues to meet through Teams that go beyond routine voice and video conferencing.
Individuals create personal 3D avatars to represent themselves in the virtual environment and then interact with other participants’ avatars or by using the traditional Teams video meeting grid views. In order to appear more lifelike, the avatar can mimic user movements, where the avatar’s animated mouth moves in response to sound signals when the user e.g. speaker.
The avatars will interact in a set of pre-built “immersive spaces” to replicate meeting rooms or social mixers, for example, Microsoft said. This could enable a product team to create a virtual space with a whiteboard for brainstorming and 3D design prototypes displayed on a table. A VR headset is not required: Mesh for Teams is also available via smartphone and laptop, Microsoft said.
The mesh feature will begin rolling out to Teams users in preview during the first half of 2022, Microsoft said. The price has not yet been announced.
Microsoft’s metaverse ‘aspirations for the workplace
Microsoft describes Mesh for Teams as its bid for the “meta-verse,” a term increasingly used by companies to describe virtual environments for social collaboration. Facebook, which recently changed its name to Meta, has been particularly vocal about the idea and has also built its own vision for virtual environments for the workplace; its Horizon Workrooms, unveiled in August, provide similar functionality as Mesh.
Cisco has also been experimenting with VR meetings for several years and recently launched a pilot program for Webex Hologram, an augmented reality meeting tool that lets users interact with virtual objects by putting on AR glasses. Startup Spatial has also gained attention for its virtual meeting rooms in recent years.
With Teams, the idea is that Mesh enables more engaging meetings, Microsoft said, as well as giving workers an alternative way to maintain “presence” during meetings without appearing on camera.
Many people have complained of fatigue when they are on camera for extended periods during the day, so an animated representation of themselves can reduce stress, Microsoft claimed. The virtual environments are based on the Together Mode feature, which creates a two-dimensional “space” where colleagues meet, such as a board table or a conference theater.
“You can think of Microsoft’s metaverse as an enduring digital world connected to many aspects of the physical world, including people, places, and things, enabling shared experiences across the physical and digital world,” said Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft’s Executive Vice President Chairman of Communications.
“As companies accelerate their digital transformation, metaverset can help people become more [present] in virtual meetings through avatars, show up and share digital spaces to work together and even socialize.
“When we can hold a meeting where we are all present together in the same digital space without being physically in the same space, it is the next big breakthrough in [the] category of computers. And that’s what we deliver, was Mesh for Teams, “Shaw said.
“Microsoft enables teams to move from 2D to 3D / Mixed Reality support is both significant and reflects a major trend,” said Wayne Kurtzman, research director at IDC. “Social media, powered by greater bandwidth, enabled people to be more visual. It also allowed for collaboration in gaming environments, including VR.
“The greater need to learn and collaborate globally – and interact with data – is taking the expected path in new engagement platforms. In a few years, this will create benefits for early adopters and challenges for the lame.”
However, Kurtzman sounded a warning note: “We know that web browsers can leave a trail of personal data. Real engagements potentially leave significantly more personal data. This challenge must be addressed proactively by all providers and / or privacy laws,” Kurtzman said.
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