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A week after Facebook articulated its future in the metaverse, Microsoft offered its vision for augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) meetings in Microsoft Mesh for Teams at its November Ignite developer event. The service, the company says, combines the AR/VR capabilities of Microsoft Mesh — which allows people in different physical locations to join collaborative experiences through AR and VR — with the productivity tools of Teams.
Mesh builds on existing Teams features such as Together mode and Presenter view that make remote and hybrid meetings more immersive, according to Microsoft corporate VP Jeff Teper. Presenter view offers different views to, for example, show slides and notes while the audience only sees slides, while Together mode uses AI to place everyone on a call in a shared room-like environment, like a coffee shop.
“[These tools are all ways] 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,” Teper wrote in a blog post. “We’ve seen that those tools have accomplished both goals of helping a team be more effective and also helping individuals be more engaged.”
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Mesh for Teams
Mesh for Teams — which Microsoft says anyone will be able to access from smartphones, PCs, and AR/VR headsets when it launches in preview in the first half of 2022 — is ostensibly designed to make meetings more “personal” and “engaging.” Users join a standard Teams meeting as a customized avatar of themselves, and organizations can build spaces — “metaverses” — within Teams. Mesh for Teams users can then take their avatars (or, alternatively, video, static picture, or bubble with initials) into these spaces to mingle.
Mesh for Teams will roll out with a set of prebuilt immersive spaces, and over time, organizations will be able to build custom immersive spaces and deploy them to Teams. Avatars will follow users from the Teams meeting to other Mesh-enabled experiences, including immersive spaces within Teams.
“To start, we will take audio cues so as you talk your face will animate,” Katie Kelly, a principal project manager at Microsoft working on Mesh for Teams, said in a statement. “You’ll also have animations that bring additional expressivity to the avatars. Your hands will move. There will be a feeling of presence even though it’s as simple as being able to take your audio and manifest that as facial expressions. That’s the first release. The ambition is to closely follow that with Microsoft’s plethora of AI technologies so that we can use the camera to insinuate where your mouth is and mimic your head and facial movements.”
Tech giants including Microsoft and Facebook are chasing after the metaverse, a speculative, virtual universe of interconnected communities where people meet, work, play, and live their lives online. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that the market size for metaverse could reach $800 billion by 2024 if the current trend holds.
In Microsoft’s view, one aspect of the metaverse is “the culmination of the intelligent cloud and intelligent edge” working in harmony. “[The enterprise metaverse] brings together internet of things, digital twins, mixed reality,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said during a keynote at Microsoft Inspire this summer. “With our metaverse stack, you can start with the digital twin, building a rich digital model of anything physical or logical — whether it’s assets, products, a complex environment spanning people, places, things, and their interactions. The digital twin is bound to the physical world in real time so you can monitor the environment and collaborate within it using mixed reality. You can run simulations. You can apply AI to analyze and predict future states.”
Definitions of the metaverse — and what it encompasses — vary from stakeholder to stakeholder. But the competition is becoming fiercer. Last week, Facebook rebranded as Meta in a new focus on the metaverse and unveiled a host of updates to Horizon Worlds, Horizon Homes, Horizon Workrooms, Messenger VR, and fitness VR, its platforms where users can create virtual worlds, conference rooms, and home spaces of their own designs
“I think digital goods and creators are just going to be huge … in terms of people expressing themselves through their avatars, through digital clothing, through digital goods, the apps that they have, that they bring with them from place to place,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during Facebook’s Q2 earnings call in response to a question about revenue opportunities in the metaverse. “Commerce is going to be a big part of the metaverse. You’re going to be able to sell both physical and digital products.”
Beyond its envisioned enterprise use cases, a consumption-based model is potentially Microsoft’s play for the metaverse, too. Teams has nearly 250 million monthly active users, and if only a fraction paid for premium Mesh for Teams services — e.g., Azure development tools — it’d be worth the company’s while.
Underlining the investment it’ll take to achieve that ambition, however, Facebook told shareholders that it expects spending on metaverse-related technologies will top $10 billion in 2021. Reaching the point where a return on the metaverse can be realized clearly won’t happen overnight — and it won’t be cheap.
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