Technology

With Mesh for Teams, Microsoft plans to provide 3D workspaces for remote employees in 2022

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Enlarge / An interface and a virtual workspace for Mesh for Teams.

Microsoft has announced that it will develop an immersive 3D platform called “Mesh for Teams” for virtual meetings. As the name suggests, Mesh for Teams builds on the company’s existing Teams collaboration platform and implements the mixed reality capabilities of Microsoft Mesh.

Announced earlier this year, Mesh is a platform for virtual meetings and other collaborative get-togethers in mixed reality (a collective term for virtual reality, augmented reality, or a combination of both) with a variety of devices including the company’s own HoloLens products and Windows Mixed Reality -Headsets, among others. Users would have permanent avatars that accurately reflect their body language and facial expressions and could wander around a virtual workplace.

Workstations would use Mesh for Teams to invite employees to log into collaborative 3D or 2D workspaces. Sitting at a virtual conference table, workers could do things that are impossible in the real world. For example, a presenter could see her notes in 3D space near a virtual whiteboard, while viewers of the presentation only see what she writes on the board.

The service comes with some pre-built workspaces, but companies can create and customize their own, just like employees can create avatars. None of this requires a VR headset to begin with; Workers could connect to smartphones and laptops and see the rooms on their screens.

According to Microsoft’s blog post on the subject, the platform will initially only animate the faces of avatars based on audio cues when users speak. But soon, Microsoft plans to provide these avatars with a basic mirroring of users’ facial expressions through the use of webcams.

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We saw such technology in Apple’s Animoji feature for iPhones, the Kinect peripheral for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and even in massively multiplayer online games from years ago like EverQuest II. The technology has also played a prominent role on Amazon’s Twitch streaming platform, as in the VTuber movement and innovative streamers like CodeMiko.

3D avatars could also appear next to real faces in normal video calls.Enlarge / 3D avatars could also appear next to real faces in normal video calls.

Microsoft’s announcement is filled with references to the “Metaverse” that recently became popular again through letters of intent from Facebook, now Meta-CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The term comes from a science fiction novel called Snow Crash, although the novel described the feature in dystopian terms, contrary to the optimistic tone used by Meta, Microsoft, and other tech companies leading this wave.

Although Zuckerberg recently announced the turning point for what is known as the Metaverse to distract from the deep and serious problems Meta / Facebook has with its core business, the concept he has chosen to champion (and which Microsoft is pushing here as well) is older than this step. For several years now, unprecedented levels of venture capital have been flowing into mixed reality startups in the workplace.

It’s far from a new idea and has been seen on platforms like Second Life (which still exists). However, investors and business leaders believe that a combination of the social and cultural impact of the pandemic, upcoming improvements in VR and AR technology and accessibility, increasingly efficient mobile processors, the expansion of remote working and new machine learning applications will pave the way for one immersive, permanent, networked, alternative 3D level to the workplace, which would be natural enough to appeal to employees and employers alike.

Today, however, there are still major technological barriers to making this vision a reality.

Mesh for Teams is a far cry from what Zuckerberg and others describe for the distant future, which would include hologram and augmented reality technology in place of or in addition to virtual reality for more natural and comfortable experiences. But it is Microsoft’s first attempt to ride the wave of investor and media hype around the so-called “Metaverse” concept.

The first version is expected to be available for Teams users in 2022.

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