Microsoft is creating something more ambitious than a metaverse
Microsoft Teams has 250 million users worldwide. And from 2022, they will be able to meet in virtual spaces, wearing virtual reality and augmented reality headsets.
Instead of just streaming live video, people will be able to appear as cartoon avatars of themselves, with facial expressions expressed in real time, including smiles and frowns. And yes, they have permission – you have permission – to make you as angry as your little cartoon heart wants.
“You can be pissed off,” promises Alex Kipman, technical manager for AI and mixed reality, laughing after I pestered him about it for a few minutes. And that simple gesture sums up a lot about how Microsoft envisions the future of work and the future of almost everything online in the age of the metaverse.
Microsoft has been developing its own vision of the Metaverse via Mesh for several years now in conjunction with the launch of its Hololens AR headset. But so far what Mesh is has been quite difficult to figure out. This is mainly because Mesh is a fundamental technology: it is the way Microsoft connects people on any device (smartphones, laptops, headsets, etc.) in shared spaces where they can all interact, whatever however they were able to connect.
Now, with Microsoft announcing today that Mesh will arrive in Teams in 2022, we get our first definitive look at what it will look like in a popular app.
Facebook’s own metaverse platform / Meta, announced last week, has obvious similarities to what Microsoft is showing today. Companies can create their own 3D brand spaces on both platforms. People’s avatars are cute and cartoony on both of them as well. But Microsoft executives are bluntly drawing a line between Facebook / Meta’s approach to the Metaverse and theirs, because while Facebook / Meta wants to own the Metaverse, Microsoft would prefer to feed it.
âThere’s a world out there that thinks there will be a metaverse, and everyone will be living in ‘my’ metaverse. To me, that’s a dystopian view of the future, âsays Kipman. âI am a subscriber to a multiverse. Every website today is a metaverse tomorrow. What makes the internet interesting, as opposed to [old platforms like] AOL and CompuServe, connect the websites.
Microsoft imagines Teams as a prototype of the metaverse, where companies can create their own spaces. Rather than ruling its own metaverse like the Meta / Facebook aspire, Microsoft sees its role with Mesh in providing the foundational glue that helps hold a multiverse of worlds together. It is not just a philosophical view of technology. Microsoft’s mesh is designed to allow businesses to use APIs, much like apps can do on the iPhone today, to help a business build its metaverse and have a persistent identity in all of those metavers. .
“We win in our strategy if we have an infinite metaverse[s] out there as opposed to a few, or one, âsays Kipman.
Mesh for Microsoft Teams gives us a glimpse of what Metaverse might look like. As a pilot partner, Accenture onboarded tens of thousands of new employees during the pandemic into a virtual global headquarters (Accenture does not actually have a physical global headquarters). HR staff spend two days acclimating new hires through interactive workshops, which include your more typical conference rooms, but also a phishing pond to teach identity scams and a Mountain Leaderships Essentials they climb. to learn more about the attributes Accenture looks for in leaders. New employees can even take a virtual photo with each other.
âIt might sound cheesy, but people like it,â says Ellyn Shook, chief executive and human resources officer at Accenture. âIt’s much better than being on the teams and having an instructor talking to you for two days. “
Enterprise metaverse spaces will vary in size and scope, depending on how much development companies invest in their digital real estate. What will be more consistent is the user side of the experience: more specifically, how your own avatar can interact with these metaverse. And the rules of engagement that Microsoft develops for how you appear in the virtual world are perhaps even more important than the design of that world.
Why use an avatar?
Microsoft’s anchor philosophy with Mesh is that you can come, not just as you are, but as you want to be. As mentioned before, you’ll be able to log into Teams with your webcam or phone just like you could before. But you can also choose to appear as a cartoon avatar of your own design.
If you are on an audio-only call, Microsoft uses software to translate your spoken words into the appropriate mouth shapes. This speech also involves accompanying gestures and expressions. If you have a webcam, Microsoft can use this data to map these expressions with greater precision.
My first question to Microsoft executives was: why do we keep seeing avatars of cartoon characters in virtual spaces? Are they useful? Or are they a smiley veneer that is draped over real communication?
It turns out that cartoons serve several important functions, especially for those of us who prefer not to be in front of the camera all day.
âToday, people are faced with a very binary choice when joining a digital meeting. They have to choose whether they have their camera on or off, âsays Jared Spataro, vice president of Microsoft 365 and Teams. âCam on means you’re in the foreground, people see your every move. Camera off means you’re hardly sending any social signals and it’s hard to project the feeling of being engaged in the meeting.
Indeed, we have all wondered if this colleague who is cut with the video disabled is really present at the meeting. Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab has tested these extremes. They attached EEGs to people’s heads and saw them digitally deplete by appearing on video. They also found that when you have an avatar, 70% of other people in the meeting feel that person was present.
Choosing a cartoon avatar is simply the best option we have for presenting a human body in 3D for the level of graphics technology we have today, says Kipman. Microsoft’s cartoon avatars will be able to project your own body language, mapping your movements through a webcam or other means.
Avatars look sophisticated enough to mimic facial expressions, and Microsoft doesn’t want to mess with them. “You have to [be able to] represent yourself authentically, âsays Kipman. âThis includes frowning and being pissed off. The agency point is important. Because as a business and emotional construct it is important that the avatar represents you in the most authentic way possible.
This is also important because Microsoft is hoping that you will remove your Mesh avatar from Teams and head into the multiverse. Mesh APIs take this possibility into account, and they both balance your own identity persistence with the rules and regulations that might be built into any different metaverse you visit.
Kipman imagines that you (and your avatar) could attend a virtual concert on a Sunday night and grab a T-shirt. The next morning your avatar should be able to work on Teams, in this T-shirt. Well, if it’s appropriate. Each individual metaverse can impose its own rules.
âIf the Department of Defense (DoD) metaverse says ‘we don’t want Mickey Mouse t-shirts in, just uniforms.’ . . the way they handle data today, they can [ban] Mickey Mouse t-shirts in their metaverse, âsays Kipman.
Maybe a DoD dress code doesn’t seem so noticeable at first glance, but Kipman explains that a PG-rated metaverse could set rules and standards around certain avatar choices, ensuring there are safe spaces for families as well as adults – a challenge that the internet has failed quite dramatically today. Of course, Mesh for Teams is still under development and many of its features have barely been detailed. But it’s clear that Microsoft is trying to strike a balance between serious self-expression and reasonable regulation. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced by augmented reality meetings. But a more civil Internet seems like a utopia to me.