Microsoft announced new features for Copilot in Dynamics 365 and Microsoft Mesh for immersive collaboration in Teams at Microsoft Ignite 2023. The focus on key use cases like remote expertise and readily available guides and information are strong value-added features, but the implementation of Mesh within Teams looks less impactful on moving the buildup to the metaverse in a meaningful way. More focus needs to be placed on the users and approaching immersive communication and collaboration through an iterative or layered approach, building upon more basic (but strong value-added) features before pushing deeper immersion.
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Microsoft Announces Microsoft Mesh and Copilot Additions at Microsoft Ignite 2023
At Microsoft Ignite 2023, the focus was on Artificial Intelligence (AI), but the metaverse also received some attention with the announcement of Microsoft Mesh (immersive spaces in Teams coming January 2024) and Copilot in Dynamics 365 (Guides and Remote Assistance) to help frontline workers access information, troubleshoot problems, and access guides/information, training, remote expertise, etc. While Microsoft Mesh was originally positioned as a platform for mixed reality, the slower adoption of immersive hardware has shifted attention to broader applications in the form of immersive spaces in Teams. This strategic shift aligns with Microsoft’s recent decisions to scale back its more deeply immersive endeavors to deliver nearer-term value.
Immersive spaces in Teams will leverage the avatars Microsoft introduced earlier into Teams, moving the experience into a Three-Dimensional (3D) space versus the Two-Dimensional (2D) mosaic panel of video feeds. Microsoft will offer curated 3D spaces and customization tools to allow companies to create spaces that fit their needs within a no-code editor; for example, creating tailored spaces for training, virtual events, general collaboration, tours, group activities, etc. Microsoft Mesh will also support spatial audio and audio zones to allow groups within a 3D space to hold separate conversations. Mesh supports Extended Reality (XR) Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) for the most immersive experiences, but these devices are not necessary and if adoption rates are healthy, most early activity will not take place through XR.
While the avatars in Mesh still look like they were pulled from a video game or 3D social network (still with no legs), work within the industry is being done to make avatars truer to life. Recently announced FaceChain, for example, is a toolchain developed by an Alibaba Group team that uses Deep Learning (DL) and facial recognition technologies to create a “digital twin” of the user for applications in markets such as healthcare and retail. FaceChain can use several portrait 2D images to create a personalized 3D rendition of the user. Relatedly, Apple is also planning to create more lifelike virtual avatars of users using the sensors on its upcoming Vision Pro HMD, which could be used within other communication and collaboration platforms outside of the Apple ecosystem.
Positive Steps Forward, but Still Not Enough to Catalyze the Buildup to a Future Metaverse
Microsoft’s additions of Copilot in Dynamics 365 (Guides and Remote Assistance) are solid additions that create a valuable bridge between pre-existing needs and future more immersive applications such as remote expertise. Microsoft Mesh, however, is likely to encounter less enthusiasm from its Teams user base. While 3D can provide a more interactive environment and serve as a welcome change from video calls, it will not appeal to, or be suitable for, everyone. Many prospective users will outright prefer traditional communication channels, which will create a heterogeneous user environment—mixed across video/2D, 3D avatars, and interface devices (Personal Computer (PC), smartphone, XR HMD). A heterogenous collaboration environment, by default, is not negative, in fact, it will be necessary for years to come; however, if the user experience is not well optimized for all users, this will greatly diminish the value of working within that immersive environment. Sub-optimal heterogenous collaborative environments have prevented companies from adopting these types of solutions, and among those with early deployments or trials, prevented them from scaling up operations.
3D and virtual events are also still far from streamlined and natural experiences. Virtual events can still require users to schedule pre-event training sessions to help users create their avatars, learn the user interfaces, and determine how to navigate the environment—users having to ask how to make their avatar sit in a virtual seat is not an intuitive experience. While users can and will become accustomed to operating in these environments, too often the initial learning curve serves as a poor first impression, souring users from these types of immersive environments. Having experienced these issues firsthand, it is understandable how most users are still reluctant to participate in these forms of immersive collaboration. Better personalization of avatars, however, could prove to be a pathway forward to get additional buy-in into these virtual spaces.
Focus on the User to Drive Adoption
Rather than focusing on the virtual environments, more efforts need to bring the user experience to the forefront. Examples such as NVIDIA’s developer platform Maxine to improve real-time communications with AI (e.g., fixing eye contact, seamless language translations) should be the starting point, not 3D environments to make general collaboration more immersive. If virtual avatars are created to mirror users in looks and accurately reflect non-verbal cues, this would create a stronger connection to the user and their digital counterparts. Even if these avatars are indistinguishable from typical camera captured feeds, AI could be used to fix bad hair days, apply more appropriate attire, etc. By focusing on higher-value additive features, users will become accustomed to using avatars, which could then extend to moving to 3D environments. In cases where 3D assets or models are part of the workflow, collaborative 3D environments have a stronger role to play, even if the technologies (e.g., VR HMDs) are not yet ready for mainstream audiences.
For most companies and users, immersive communication and collaboration will need to occur through a layered approach, starting with features that provide value, but are not significant departures from more conventional tools and services. This will also give interface technologies like smart glasses time to develop. The buildup to the metaverse is a marathon that requires a different “training” regiment than other shorter races.