Microsoft bets on a mixed-reality future with new Mesh platform

3 Mar 2021

Alex Kipman showcasing the Mesh platform at Ignite. Image: Microsoft

In a major step up from Teams calls, the Microsoft Mesh platform aims to help co-workers feel like they are in the same room.

As the future of work looks increasingly hybrid, Microsoft is exploring new ways that people can collaborate and interact when they are distributed around the world.

The big reveal at the company’s Ignite 2021 virtual tech event has been Microsoft Mesh – a new mixed-reality platform to help people feel like they are in the same room as each other.

Users can interact with 3D content or with each other through Mesh-enabled apps on different platforms and devices, using a combination of virtual and augmented reality.

“This has been the dream for mixed reality, the idea from the very beginning,” Microsoft technical fellow Alex Kipman said during his keynote speech at Ignite yesterday (2 March).

“You can actually feel like you’re in the same place with someone sharing content or you can teleport from different mixed reality devices and be present with people even when you’re not physically together.”

A virtual image of people gathered together around a vehicle.

Microsoft Mesh aims to allow geographically distributed teams to collaborate in shared mixed-reality sessions where participants appear as digital representations of themselves. Image: Microsoft

Microsoft is starting out with the ability to gather users together in a conference room setting – something that may come in handy with the rise in remote and hybrid work.

Users will initially be able to express themselves as avatars in these shared virtual spaces, but over time holoportation could be used. Kipman himself appeared on the Ignite virtual stage as a holoportation, which uses 3D capture technology to beam a lifelike image of a person into a virtual scene.

But the company also sees more opportunities that it can build on, in areas such as travel, design, engineering, education and entertainment.

Microsoft said that the new platform is the result of years of R&D in areas such as hand and eye tracking, HoloLens development, holograms, and AI models that can create expressive avatars. Microsoft Mesh is built on Azure, using its computational resources, security, data, AI and mixed reality services.

“More and more we are building value in our intelligent cloud, which is Azure,” Kipman added. “In these collaborative experiences, the content is not inside my device or inside my application. The holographic content is in the cloud, and I just need the special lenses that allow me to see it.”

In the coming months, developers will have access to AI-powered tools to build collaborative tech in mixed reality that can work across multiple devices, including HoloLens 2, some VR headsets, smartphones, tablets and PCs.

Two apps built on Microsoft Mesh were announced at Ignite. The first is the Mesh app for HoloLens, which allows team members to remotely collaborate and is available for download. Customers can also request access to a new Mesh-enabled version of AltspaceVR – the company’s social VR platform that uses avatars.

In the future, Microsoft expects that users will be able to choose from a range of Mesh-enabled apps from external developers and partners, and the company plans to integrate Mesh with Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Dynamics 365.

“This is why we’ve been so passionate about mixed reality as the next big medium for collaborative computing,” Kipman said. “It’s magical when two people see the same hologram.”

Sarah Harford was sub-editor of Silicon Republic