Microsoft goes to the metaverse, bringing immersive meetings to Teams

3 Nov 2021

Mesh for Teams. Image: Microsoft

Using mixed-reality technology, Microsoft Teams users will be able to appear as avatars in meetings or visit immersive virtual spaces.

Facebook, now Meta, has been making a splash in recent weeks with its shift of focus to the metaverse – an online world of augmented and virtual reality. But it isn’t the only tech giant trying to make virtual communications more immersive.

At its Ignite conference yesterday (2 November), Microsoft announced that it is bringing its concept of the metaverse to Teams.

“The metaverse enables shared experiences across both the physical and digital worlds,” explained Frank X Shaw, Microsoft’s corporate VP for communications, in a blog post.

“As enterprises accelerate their digital transformation, the metaverse can help people meet up in a digital environment, make meetings more comfortable with the use of avatars and facilitate creative collaboration from all around the world.”

Microsoft first revealed Mesh earlier this year, a new mixed-reality platform to help people feel like they are in the same room as each other. But now the company has given a glimpse of how this technology will be integrated into Teams.

When Mesh for Teams begins to roll out in 2022, users will be able to make customised 2D and 3D avatars, which they can use to represent themselves in a Teams meeting. Other attendees might also be represented by avatars, or can continue to show themselves on video, with a static picture or bubble with their initials.

A headset won’t necessarily be needed for this feature, and the platform will use AI technologies and a user’s device camera to figure out where their mouth is and mimic movements.

A view of a Microsoft Teams call, showing a video feed for some participants and avatars for others.

Mesh for Teams. Image: Microsoft

Building on that, organisations will be able to use and build immersive workspaces, or metaverses, within Teams. Users can then take their avatars into these spaces to communicate and collaborate with colleagues.

Microsoft 365’s Jared Spataro said these might resemble physical spaces such as conference rooms, design centres and networking spaces, in a bid to “enhance camaraderie, spark creativity, and foster serendipitous water-cooler connections”.

To access Mesh for Teams, users will be able to use smartphones, PCs, tablets, VR headsets or a HoloLens, and Microsoft said the experience would continue to evolve over time as sensor technology and devices improve.

“Whatever the device, the mixed-reality technology will give each user an avatar that provides a sense of presence, that allows them to be their expressive selves when they don’t want to be on camera,” said Microsoft’s John Roach.

Hybrid work

While Meta may be focused on creating a metaverse for day-to-day life, Microsoft’s Mesh for Teams ties in firmly with its plans to prepare for the new world of hybrid work.

The idea is that mixed-reality and virtualisation technologies can help colleagues collaborate or undergo training together using holoportation or avatars.

The company is also building translation and transcription tools into Mesh for Teams, so you can communicate with a co-worker in another language, as well as productivity tools such as PowerPoint.

At Ignite, Microsoft also revealed breakthroughs in AI and developments in the areas of cloud and security. But a key theme throughout these announcements was a hybrid work future.

“As the digital and physical worlds come together, we are creating an entirely new platform layer, which is the metaverse,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at the event.

“We’re emerging into a new era where you and the invaluable work you do will be more necessary than ever.”

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Sarah Harford is sub-editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com