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

3D avatars are coming to Microsoft Teams in 2022.
Image: Microsoft

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.

Comments

Finally, enterprise-grade Vtubers!

I doubt Microsoft would put "Anime" as a character creator option in Teams

Well… sidelong look at Cortana You never know.

You know nerds run these companies right?

No thank you, the (mostly) flat live2D avatars of vtubers I watch have more life in them than those abominations. I hope that they at least add moving lips. The example in the gif looks horrendous.

I’m glad they were able to accurately replicate the dead looks my colleagues give me in real life.

"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."

Fewer video calls is the answer. Not more immersive video calls.

This will only be a time-sucking distraction as team members play with this and drag on already long meetings.

Please just send me emails, not meetings!!! The metaverse is the future, but this ain’t it.

People should be encouraged to have video off when not speaking video calls. It takes a lot of the unnecessary tension out of meetings, also means you can get up and walk around the room for a couple of minutes when you’re on a long call.

Reinventing Second Life are we.
It was a bad idea back then. It still is.
This silly fad will generate a lot of hype …and then die off.

As a parent and former ASD researcher who compiled data on children and their online/connected lives, I can tell you that the child in the US without at least one avatar/persona they maintain and evolve over time is increasingly rare. So the concept of a "second life" is already here… several times over. It is not a fad and has already succeeded. Robux and V-Bucks were erroneously considered taxable assets by the IRS – alongside bitcoin – until the discrepancy was brought to their attention – at which point they retracted. The IRS isn’t trying to figure out what to do about a fad.

My son has two Fortnite "best friends" … they’ve never met, AFAIK they don’t know birth names. They don’t know what each other looks like and AFAIK they don’t really care (my son did ask me about an accent one time). Because he recently switched schools these relationships are longer in tenure than those with his current classmates and are superseded only by friendships that stretch to kindergarten. Interestingly enough, he maintains the bulk of those (kindergarten-2nd IRL) relationships on Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite. He just started 3rd grade and is 7.

We have an Oculus Quest 2 and he’s just getting into Rec Room, etc. He’d be on VR way more if not for: my putting time limits on use, its terrible battery life, and relatively few VR headsets owned by his friends – IRL or otherwise.

The meta thing is happening now, and the pandemic catalyzed it.

exactly, meta is happening, the question is, do we want to put that in the hands of only facebook?

exactly, meta is happening, the question is, do we want to put that in the hands of only facebook?

Absolutely not. Whatever meta is should be open and decentralized. Definitely not an iteration of Facebook.

I don’t think anybody is saying that "meta isn’t happening", just that adding video game character models to Teams is not it.

Can’t wait to logout of the Teams-verse after work and login into the Meta-verse to enjoy some free time. 2031 is going to be amazing.

Hey Teams dev, I don’t give a fuck about avatars and shit, make Teams accept more than one work account and I will be happy.

Hell, I just want teams to load without having to re-launch over the course of a couple minutes when entering a video call.

Lol I want my calendar to update without me having to click a bunch of other stuff or close the app.

Teams feels so clunky

I’m sorry, but what a nightmare.

What are you sorry about?

Can’t wait for Teams to use 5GB of RAM to render avatars on my 8GB work laptop that my IT team refuses to acknowledge is already insufficient.

I feel this, I’m a software engineer so this slow laptop since I switched jobs has been killing me.

I can use my desktop but don’t want the software on there

As I read through the article, I felt an increasing sense of horror on behalf of IT help-desks everywhere — can you imagine trying to render a dozen of these avatars at once with the iGPU on a 4-year-old $400 i3 laptop, budget Android tablet, or Chromebook? Those suckers are going to melt through the floor the first time you try.

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