Microsoft on Tuesday introduced its own unique take on the metaverse with a new feature for its augmented and mixed reality Mesh platform: cartoony digital avatars people can use in Teams video chats.
These avatars were part of the original Mesh announcement earlier this year, but they've since been refined and customized to be used in specific applications, like Teams. The feature will start rolling out in 2022, the company announced at its virtual Ignite conference today.
This new feature "combines the mixed-reality capabilities of Microsoft Mesh, which allows 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," John Roach, the company's chief technology officer for digital advisory services, explained in a blog post.
Mesh avatars will start rolling out in 2022.Image: Microsoft
Roach said the goal is to make virtual collaboration feel less formal and more fun and fluid. These avatars are designed "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," said Jeff Teper, a corporate vice president on the Microsoft 365 team. "We've seen that those tools have accomplished both goals of helping a team be more effective and also helping individuals be more engaged."
Not only is Microsoft envisioning video chats with more expressive and detailed virtual avatars, but it also wants people to move away from the standard grid of faces and into more metaverse-style virtual spaces. "Organizations can also build immersive spaces – metaverses – within Teams. Mesh for Teams users can take their avatars into these spaces to mix and mingle, collaborate on projects and experience those serendipitous encounters that spark innovation," Roach wrote.
In a broader sense, this is Microsoft's answer to Meta, the rebranded Facebook that last week laid out its vision for the metaverse. In Mark Zuckerberg's keynote, the executive explained how the metaverse will bridge foundational hardware advances in virtual and augmented reality with a new kind of immersive software layer that mixes gaming, work and social networking into one all-encompassing virtual space.
Satya Nadella Ignite 2021: Mesh for Microsoft Teams www.youtube.com
Microsoft's version is understandably more tempered right now, as the company imagines just injecting some of these elements into the everyday products we use today, like Teams. That's effectively the goal of Mesh and why Microsoft is building out that platform as its own branded product focused on mixed-reality features. For instance, in the case of Mesh for Teams, you don't need to be wearing a headset: You just design an avatar and it joins the meeting in your place. "The first step most users of Mesh for Teams will take is to join a standard Teams meeting as a customized avatar of themselves instead of as a static picture or on video," Roach explained.
That's not to say Microsoft doesn't have grander ambitions. Roach's blog post makes ample mention of Alex Kipman, who led development of the HoloLens and who now helps lead the company's AR and mixed-reality projects, including Mesh. Kipman's team is now tasked with figuring out how to integrate all of these technologies into real-world Microsoft products, and in a way that actually boosts productivity in the company's eyes.
"Now, we are moving from a set of workloads that are super relevant for first-line workers into workloads for knowledge workers," Kipman said. "People like you and me, they sit in front of a desk. What do we do? We collaborate. What are we doing right now? We're collaborating. So, it turns out that Microsoft has this phenomenal, amazing collaboration tool called Microsoft Teams and we're like, 'Huh? That's where people collaborate today.'"
Roach wrote that Mesh, specifically Mesh for Teams, is "a gateway to the metaverse — a persistent digital world that is inhabited by digital twins of people, places and things." He added that the metaverse as Microsoft sees it is 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."
Right now, for Microsoft, that's as simple as swapping a virtual representation of yourself in place of a live video feed, perhaps because you haven't changed out of yesterday's clothes or had your morning shower. That certainly feels like a more palatable and practical metaverse application than anything else we've heard to date.