Microsoft Teams enters the metaverse race with 3D avatars and immersive meetings

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Microsoft is entering the race to build a metaverse inside Teams, just days after Facebook rebranded to Meta in a push to build virtual spaces for both consumers and businesses. Microsoft is bringing Mesh, a collaborative platform for virtual experiences, directly into Microsoft Teams next year. It’s part of a big effort to combine the company’s mixed reality and HoloLens work with meetings and video calls that anyone can participate in thanks to animated avatars.

With today’s announcement, Microsoft and Meta seem to be on a collision course to compete heavily in the metaverse, particularly for the future of work.

Teams will soon have new 3D avatars.
Image: Microsoft

Microsoft Mesh always felt like the future of Microsoft Teams meetings, and now it’s starting to come to life in the first half of 2022. Microsoft is building on efforts like Together Mode and other experiments for making meetings more interactive, after months of people working from home and adjusting to hybrid work.

“We got hit by meeting fatigue in the virtual world,” explains Nicole Herskowitz, general manager for Microsoft Teams, in an interview with The Verge. “After 30 or 40 minutes max in a meeting, it was very hard to stay engaged and focused.” That initial meeting fatigue led to Together Mode, and now Microsoft hopes Mesh will further help reduce the cognitive overload of having to be on video calls all day long.

Microsoft Teams will get new 3D avatars in a push toward a metaverse environment, and you won’t need to put a VR headset on to use them. These avatars can literally represent you both in 2D and 3D meetings, so you can choose to have an animated version of yourself if you’re not feeling like turning your webcam on.

Microsoft Teams is getting new 3D avatars.
Image: Microsoft

“It’s not binary, so I can choose how I want to show up, whether it’s video or an avatar, and there’s a variety of customized options to choose how you want to be present in a meeting,” says Katie Kelly, principal product manager for Microsoft Mesh, in an interview with The Verge. “We are able to interpret your vocal cues to animate that avatar, so it does feel present and it does feel like it’s there with you.”

Microsoft will use AI to listen to your voice and then animate your avatar. If you switch to a more immersive 3D meeting, then these animations will also include raising your avatar’s hands when you hit the raise hand option or animate emoji around your avatar.

The immersive spaces are really where Microsoft sees this Mesh integration as being the most useful, particularly in its efforts to build a metaverse for businesses. Microsoft envisions virtual spaces inside Teams where people can network and socialize with games or even use Microsoft apps to collaborate on projects.

Teams will include virtual meeting spaces in 2022.
Image: Microsoft

Translation and transcription will help bridge the language gap.
Image: Microsoft

These virtual environments will obviously work best with a VR or AR headset, but they’ll be open to anyone across multiple devices thanks to the animated avatar work. “I think the thing that really separates how Microsoft is approaching metaverse and our own experiences is starting with the human experience, so the feeling of presence, talking to somebody, making eye contact, and reactions are going to be important,” explains Kelly.

Microsoft is even building in translation and transcription support, so you might be able to meet in a virtual Teams space with a co-worker from across the world with fewer language barriers.

The promise is that Microsoft Teams will be able to start to use these virtual spaces and avatars in the first half of 2022. “The goal is that by the first half of next year, you’ll be able to go into an immersive space and then be able to collaborate and use Microsoft’s tools,” says Kelly.

Microsoft’s vision for its metaverse.
Image: Microsoft

Businesses will be able to build their own virtual spaces, or metaverses, inside Teams. That’s something that Accenture has been experimenting with after creating its own virtual campus for employees before the pandemic. This virtual space soon became useful, as the company has used it to onboard new hires during the pandemic.

Microsoft’s push for a metaverse inside Teams comes just days after Facebook rebranded to Meta as its company name. Meta is working on very similar concepts to Microsoft, led by the idea of a digital avatar that represents you in virtual spaces. Meta’s Reality Labs division has been building consumer hardware and software, including the Quest VR headset, and teased its own vision of remote work using augmented and virtual reality last year.

Microsoft and Meta will clearly compete heavily in the metaverse era. It’s an area Microsoft has spent years investing in, with its HoloLens work and its acquisition of AltspaceVR. Microsoft and Meta aren’t alone, though. Many companies have started using platforms like Spatial to offer virtual spaces for events, meetings, and networking opportunities.

Meta has billions of daily users across Facebook and Instagram to leverage for its metaverse ambitions, and Microsoft has the millions of daily Teams users and integration into Office to try to make the metaverse a reality for businesses. The metaverse battle for your digital avatars is only just beginning.

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