When I first used Microsoft Mesh, the company’s mixed reality platform, I said it felt “like the virtual future of Microsoft Teams meetings.” Now, nearly three years later, Microsoft is making immersive 3D Teams meetings a reality. In January, Microsoft Mesh is being integrated into Teams to allow co-workers to meet together in a virtual space — no VR headset required.
It’s a big shift in Microsoft’s original vision for Mesh — an entire platform built on top of Azure that Microsoft hoped developers would tap into — but then a lot has changed with Microsoft’s VR / AR ambitions over the past few years. Microsoft’s HoloLens boss, Alex Kipman, left the company last year following misconduct allegations. Six months later, Microsoft shut down AltspaceVR, the social VR platform it acquired in 2017, amid layoffs affecting its mixed reality division.
Microsoft Mesh still exists as a separate platform, for now, but it’s one that’s also heading directly into Teams. “There has been a pretty meaningful shift with Microsoft Mesh,” admits Nicole Herskowitz, vice president for Microsoft Teams marketing, in an interview with The Verge. “It was more of a platform. We’ve really made a big shift to bring it into the technology where people work every day, like Microsoft Teams, and really SaaS-ify the service so that it’s accessible to everyone in the place where they work.”
Over the past few months, Mesh has shifted toward a platform for 3D meetings and events inside Teams, and it now feels a lot more like a corporate version of AltspaceVR. Microsoft has a lot of competition in this space from startups that also have grand ideas for the future of immersive meetings. Jugo, Frame, and of course Meta have enticed many companies to experiment with 3D meetings, but Microsoft has the advantage of having more than 320 million monthly Teams users to whom it can market Mesh.
During the peak of pandemic-era metaverse meeting obsession, Microsoft and Meta looked like they were on the way toward becoming fierce competitors, but a surprise partnership has seen the software giant commit to bringing Teams, Office, Windows, and even Xbox experiences to Meta’s popular VR headsets.
Last week, I used a Meta Quest 3 headset to try out Mesh in Teams. I entered a virtual space that could be customized to look like a boardroom, one of several casual meeting spaces, or even social events. I even spent some time tossing bean bags, creating music, and roasting virtual marshmallows — all part of what Microsoft has created as team bonding exercises in its 3D worlds.
You won’t need to wear a VR headset for this Teams experience, but it’s obviously far more immersive if you do. Microsoft has built a 2D version into Teams, but 2D users are essentially appearing as a webcam window inside a 3D environment, watching everyone else having fun with 3D avatars. It feels a little like being the lone remote worker in a pre-pandemic meeting — never really feeling like part of it because you weren’t in the actual conference room.
“It really kind of sparks the opportunity to bring new technology into the workplace,” says Herskowitz. “We’ve done a ton of work to make hybrid meetings more inclusive and productive, but we also want to take it a step further so employees can feel connected no matter where they’re working because we also know coming together in a physical space isn’t always possible.”
The immersive experience in Teams definitely feels like you’re part of a meeting, even though the people you’re speaking to are floating avatars with no legs. It takes a few minutes to get used to that, but if you’ve ever used AltspaceVR, VRChat, or Meta Horizon Workrooms then it’ll feel very familiar.
Microsoft also makes use of spatial audio and audio zones, so there could be multiple people having simultaneous conversations in the same space without talking over each other. That’s great for natural breakout conversations that are often awkward over Teams, Zoom, or other meeting software.
I also attended a meeting with Mercy Ships, an international charity that provides underprivileged communities with healthcare through hospital ships. Mercy Ships has been using Microsoft Mesh to create 3D ocean liners that people can explore during fundraising events. I explored one in Mesh that was created using Unity, and it weirdly felt like I was touring the ship despite a cartoon-like realism. Mercy Ships is using this experience for onboarding and potentially even training in the future.
“We’ve gotten very used to working together in this two-dimensional way, where we’re almost talking at each other, but we think there’s a world where we can talk with each other as if we’re sitting next to each other, giving each other high fives, having those natural connections,” says Herskowitz. “Mesh has really been designed to create that experience of being in the same room as someone else.”
When I first used a HoloLens headset to access Mesh, nearly three years ago, Microsoft made grand promises about AR that still haven’t paid off. Is Mesh really here to stay? “We actually see AR as being a platform for the future,” says Yancey Smith, general manager of Microsoft’s mixed reality commercial and consumer businesses. “Today the HoloLens is very much focused on the frontline worker segment. Whereas with Teams and with Mesh we really targeted that vast number of information workers that are entering meetings, and trying to give them an experience that goes beyond the grid.”
So if you get invited to a Microsoft Teams meeting in January, you might just be hanging out in a virtual lake house, tossing virtual bean bags, and getting to know your remote colleagues that you’ve never met. And as Microsoft is adding AI to all of its products, it’s only a matter of time before you can summon whatever you can imagine into a 3D meeting. Smith teased the potential for Copilot in Teams to generate whiteboards during 3D meetings, or even create a sticky note and objects you can use in these spaces. Expect to hear more about generative AI in these 3D meetings in the future.
But before all of that, Microsoft still needs to convince the world that immersive meetings are the way forward. All the metaverse hype died down in favor of AI over the past year, and hybrid meeting fatigue has kicked in. Immersive meetings felt like the future during the pandemic, but are we really ready to dive into a headset for a meeting that should have been an email?