Microsoft will bring Mesh avatars and virtual environments to Teams

Starting next year, Teams users will be able to “meet” in 3D spaces and work with their colleagues.

Microsoft Teams users will soon be able to create their own animated avatars to meet colleagues in 3D virtual environments, thanks to the future integration of the company’s mixed reality platform, Mesh.

Mesh, introduced by Microsoft earlier this year, provides tools for developing 2D and 3D virtual environments for collaboration and communication. To date, the effort has included creating a dedicated Mesh collaboration application for Microsoft HoloLens VR Headset users, as well as integrating Mesh features – such as avatars – with AltSpaceVR, its social virtual reality software. (Both are currently under testing.)

At the company’s Ignite event, Microsoft discussed plans to integrate the mixed reality platform with Teams, its workplace video conferencing, and the chat app that has 250 million users worldwide.

What is Mesh for Teams?

Essentially, the integration provides an alternative way for colleagues to come together through Teams that go beyond routine voice calling and video conferencing.

Individuals create custom 3D avatars to represent themselves in the virtual environment and then interact with other participants’ avatars or using traditional Teams video conferencing grid views. To look more real, the avatar can mimic the user’s gestures, with the animation of the avatar’s mouth moving in response to audio signals when the user speaks, for example.

The avatars will interact in a set of pre-built “immersive spaces” to replicate boardrooms or social mixers, for example, Microsoft said. This can allow a product team to create a virtual space with a whiteboard for brainstorming and 3D design prototypes displayed on a table. No virtual reality headset is needed: Mesh for Teams can also be accessed via smartphone and laptop, Microsoft said.

The Mesh feature will begin rolling out to Teams Preview users during the first half of 2022, according to the company. The price has not yet been announced.

Microsoft’s “metaverse” aspirations for the workplace

Microsoft describes Mesh for Teams as a “metaverse” approach, a term increasingly used by companies to describe virtual environments for social collaboration. Facebook, which recently changed its name to Meta, has been particularly a voice over the idea, and has also built its own vision of virtual environments for the workplace; its Horizon Workrooms, unveiled in August, offer Mesh-like functionality.

Cisco has also experimented with virtual reality meetings for many years, and recently launched a pilot program for Webex Hologram, an augmented reality meeting tool that allows users to interact with virtual objects using AR glasses. Startup Spatial has also drawn attention to its virtual meeting spaces in recent years.

With Teams, the idea is that Mesh will make meetings more engaging, Microsoft said, and provide workers with an alternative way to maintain “presence” during meetings without appearing in front of the cameras. Many people complained of fatigue when filmed for long periods during the day, so a vivid representation of yourself can reduce stress, the company said. Virtual environments are based on the Joint Mode functionality, which creates a two-dimensional “space” where colleagues meet, such as a boardroom or conference room.

“You can think of Microsoft’s metaverse as a persistent digital world linked to many aspects of the physical world, including people, places, and things, allowing for shared experiences between the physical and digital worlds,” said Frank Shaw, vice president of communications at Microsoft. “As companies accelerate their digital transformation, the metaverse can help people be more [present] in virtual meetings through avatars, meet and share digital spaces to work together and even socialize.

“When we can have a meeting where we’re all present together in the same digital space without physically being in the same space – this is the next big step in the computing category. And that’s what we’re delivering with Mesh for Teams,” Shaw said.

“Microsoft allowing Teams to sum up from 2D to 3D/mixed reality support is significant and reflects a larger trend,” said Wayne Kurtzman, Director of Research at IDC. “Social media, driven by higher bandwidths, allowed people to be more visual. It also enabled collaboration in gaming environments, including VR. The increased need to learn and collaborate globally – and interact with data – is taking the expected path in new engagement platforms. In a matter of years, this will create advantages for early users and challenges for those who are late.”

However, Kurtzman warned: “We know that web browsers can leave a trail of personal data. Real-life appointments can leave much more personal data behind. This challenge must be proactively addressed by all vendors and/or privacy laws,” he said.

Source: PC World


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