Microsoft’s master plan for consumer AR: Start with the plumbing

The company's new Mesh platform allows developers to share holograms and avatars across mixed-reality devices.

Microsoft’s master plan for consumer AR: Start with the plumbing

Ever since launching the original HoloLens in 2016, Microsoft executives have hinted at plans to eventually build consumer AR hardware and services.

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft unveiled an ambitious new AR/VR platform called Mesh on Tuesday that allows developers to add avatar synchronization, spatial audio, shared holograms and persistent virtual spaces to any app. At the company's Ignite conference, executives demonstrated Mesh with a virtual keynote held in AltSpace, Microsoft's social VR world that is being powered by the platform going forward. Developers will also be able to build Mesh-powered apps for VR headsets, including Facebook's Oculus Quest, and desktop PCs. Support for Android and iOS will be added in the near future.

Ultimately, Microsoft plans to turn Mesh into something like the company's Xbox Live service: the plumbing that allows developers to add multi-user functionality to their own AR and VR apps at scale. And while Microsoft's own bets may be focused on the enterprise at first, the company clearly hopes that third-party developers will extend its reach to millions of consumers. "We do think this is the future of computing, beyond just enterprise customers," Microsoft's mixed reality director, Greg Sullivan, said.

Some of that expanded focus was apparent during Tuesday's keynote, which included guest appearances by James Cameron and Niantic CEO John Hanke, who demonstrated a proof-of-concept demo of a Mesh-powered Pokemon Go game using HoloLens.

Microsoft's own first test case for Mesh is a little closer to heart: The company unveiled a new HoloLens collaboration app, internally code-named Fenix but ultimately released under the Microsoft Mesh moniker, that allows teams to meet for design reviews in AR. During a demo given to a small group of journalists ahead of Ignite, Sullivan used the app to place shared holograms on a virtual table that participants could then hand back and forth, mark up, and discuss with spatial audio, all while being represented with AltSpace-like avatars.

At one point during the demo, Sullivan opened a simulated Teams call in a 2D window to show how cross-platform support with participants joining from desktop devices may look. Mesh's built-in 3D tracking allowed him to treat that 2D window as a kind of virtual camera, and move it around a hologram to show the desktop participant all angles of the virtual object.

For Microsoft, Mesh (Mesh the app, not to be confused with Mesh the platform) is more than just a demo; it's a hint of things to come. "The future default experience of HoloLens is multi-user collaboration," Sullivan said, suggesting that the home screen of the device itself could become a Mesh-like collaboration environment. And the company's plans don't stop there. "We will Mesh-enable our first-party Microsoft apps," he said. One prime candidate is Teams, the company's Slack-like collaboration service. Company executives didn't share a timeline for bringing AR meetings to Teams just yet, but Sullivan made it clear that it is part of the roadmap. "That will happen," he said.

Bringing Teams calls to AR could pit Microsoft against startups like Spatial, which has developed its own AR collaboration software. However, Sullivan singled out Spatial as an example for a company that could ultimately benefit from Mesh as well. "The Spatial guys spent a non-trivial percentage of their resources building the plumbing," he said. "We can relieve them of the burden of the plumbing and help them differentiate on the things that really are special about their offering."

While Microsoft may initially focus on Spatial-like services for HoloLens, Mesh is clearly meant for much broader use cases. Developers are getting access to Mesh for free, and cross-platform support is supposed to further accelerate adoption. "It's not locked, and I don't have to buy one company's hardware, or one company's OS," Sullivan said. Part of that cross-platform approach has been the decision not to reinvent the wheel on mobile. "We're not asking people to kind of rip out their native APIs and replace them with ours," he said. "We'll use ARKit and ARCore for anchoring and mapping."

Sullivan suggested that developers could use Mesh to create immersive social apps like Rec Room, and he likened the platform to Xbox Live, Microsoft's multiplayer game service. "You could do multiplayer network gaming before, but you had to build all the plumbing yourself. Quake and Doom, they did it, but that doesn't scale," he said. "Now, any application that wants to, will be able to have that capability."

Ever since launching the original HoloLens in 2016, Microsoft executives have hinted at plans to eventually build consumer AR hardware and services as well. "We think this is the future of computing," Sullivan said. "And implicit in that statement is, yeah, a consumer thing."

How Microsoft would get to that future has long been less clear. The HoloLens 2, which was unveiled in 2019, is an impressive piece of hardware with hand- and eye-tracking. It's also still a pretty bulky headset, with a hefty $3,500 price tag that is clearly made for the enterprise.

At the same time, the company has struggled to establish itself as a player in the consumer AR/VR space. Partnerships with companies like Lenovo, Asus, Dell and Samsung to build VR headsets powered by Microsoft's mixed-reality software largely fizzled, with only HP sticking around to iterate on compatible hardware. Now, Microsoft is now adding an interesting twist: a cloud-based platform that could power the AR apps of the future, whether they run on AR glasses made by Microsoft, Facebook or even Apple.

"One of the discussions that we've had internally has been: How much hinting, how much teasing do we do about how we think about this?" Sullivan said.

When it comes to Microsoft's vision for the future of AR beyond the enterprise, Mesh may have been the clearest hint yet.

Clarification: This story was updated on March 2 to clarify that Fenix was the internal code name for Mesh.

Protocol | Policy

5 things to know about FCC nominee Gigi Sohn

The veteran of some of the earliest tech policy fights is a longtime consumer champion and net-neutrality advocate.

Gigi Sohn, who President Joe Biden nominated to serve on the FCC, is a longtime net-neutrality advocate.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated Gigi Sohn to serve as a Federal Communications Commissioner, teeing up a Democratic majority at the agency that oversees broadband issues after months of delay.

Like Lina Khan, who Biden picked in June to head up the Federal Trade Commission, Sohn is a progressive favorite. And if confirmed, she'll take up a position in an agency trying to pull policy levers on net neutrality, privacy and broadband access even as Congress is stalled.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

If you've ever tried to pick up a new fitness routine like running, chances are you may have fallen into the "motivation vs. habit" trap once or twice. You go for a run when the sun is shining, only to quickly fall off the wagon when the weather turns sour.

Similarly, for many businesses, 2020 acted as the storm cloud that disrupted their plans for innovation. With leaders busy grappling with the pandemic, innovation frequently got pushed to the backburner. In fact, according to McKinsey, the majority of organizations shifted their focus mainly to maintaining business continuity throughout the pandemic.

Keep Reading Show less
Gaurav Kataria
Group Product Manager, Trello at Atlassian
Protocol | Workplace

Adobe wants a more authentic NFT world

Adobe's Content Credentials feature will allow Creative Cloud subscribers to attach edit-tracking information to Photoshop files. The goal is to create a more trustworthy NFT market and digital landscape.

Adobe's Content Credentials will allow users to attach their identities to an image

Image: Adobe

Remember the viral, fake photo of Kurt Cobain and Biggie Smalls that duped and delighted the internet in 2017? Doctored images manipulate people and erode trust and we're not great at spotting them. The entire point of the emerging NFT art market is to create valuable and scarce digital files and when there isn't an easy way to check for an image's origin and edits, there's a problem. What if someone steals an NFT creator's image and pawns it off as their own? As a hub for all kinds of multimedia, Adobe feels a responsibility to combat misinformation and provide a safe space for NFT creators. That's why it's rolling out Content Credentials, a record that can be attached to a Photoshop file of a creator's identity and includes any edits they made.

Users can connect their social media addresses and crypto wallet addresses to images in Photoshop. This further proves the image creator's identity, but it's also helpful in determining the creators of NFTs. Adobe has partnered with NFT marketplaces KnownOrigin, OpenSea, Rarible and SuperRare in this effort. "Today there's not a way to know that the NFT you're buying was actually created by a true creator," said Adobe General Counsel Dana Rao. "We're allowing the creator to show their identity and attach it to the image."

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Protocol | China

Why another Chinese lesbian dating app just shut down

With neither political support nor a profitable business model, lesbian dating apps are finding it hard to survive in China.

Operating a dating app for LGBTQ+ communities in China is like walking a tightrope.

Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

When Lesdo, a Chinese dating app designed for lesbian women, announced it was closing down, it didn't come as a surprise to the LGBTQ+ community.

It's unclear what directly caused this decision. 2021 hasn't been kind to China's queer communities; WeChat has deactivated queer groups' public accounts and Beijing has pressured charity organizations not to work with queer activists.

Keep Reading Show less
Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

The Oura Ring was a sleep-tracking hit. Can the next one be even more?

Oura wants to be a media company, an activity tracker and even a way to know you're sick before you feel sick.

Over the last few years, the Oura Ring has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch.

Photo: Oura

Oura CEO Harpreet Rai swears he didn't know Kim Kardashian was a fan. He was as surprised as anyone when she started posting screenshots from the Oura app to her Instagram story, and got into a sleep battle with fellow Oura user Gwyneth Paltrow. Or when Jennifer Aniston revealed that Jimmy Kimmel got her hooked on Oura … and how her ring fell off in a salad. "I am addicted to it," Aniston said, "and it's ruining my life" by shaming her about her lack of sleep. "I think we're definitely seeing traction outside of tech," Rai said. "Which is cool."

Over the last couple of years, Oura's ring (imaginatively named the Oura Ring) has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch. The company started with a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, but really started to find traction with its second-generation model in 2018. It's not exactly a mainstream device — Oura said it has sold more than 500,000 rings, up from 150,000 in March 2020 but still not exactly Apple Watch levels — but it has reached some of the most successful, influential and probably sleep-deprived people in the industry. Jack Dorsey is a professed fan, as is Marc Benioff.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Latest Stories