Microsoft Teams will launch avatars in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) next year
There's no true "Zoom for VR" yet, although several companies are targeting this goal. The mainstream work tools that most people use have yet to leap. Facebook, which is trying to push its entire company into the metaverse, doesn't yet have one. Meanwhile, Microsoft is finally pushing Teams toward a VR/ AR bridge tool, which will be available in beta in the first half of 2022.
Cross-device upgrades for laptops, phones, virtual reality, and Microsoft Hololens headsets make avatars the focal point, as well as an immersive meeting space that folds into Microsoft Office 365 apps and services. In a way, this sounds like Facebook's Horizon Workrooms experiment with virtual work meetings.
During the pandemic, the Microsoft team began to be redefined: in 2020 an experimental add-on called Together Mode rearranged participants into classrooms and auditoriums, akin to transforming VR spirit into a 2D videoconferencing app. With Microsoft's awareness that the world isn't going to spend most of its time working remotely on VR headsets any time soon, Zoom fatigue remains.
Microsoft's next step in the team is to use these avatars to give people more control over their image and identity. These characters will work in the 2D mode for the team as an alternative to showing your real face on camera, but they can express reactions and emotions. They will also work in 3D immersive Spaces where VR, AR, and 2D screens intersect.
Nicole Herskowitz, general manager of Microsoft's team, told CNET that research conducted by the company through its in-house Human Factors lab found that 85 percent of avatars felt "very or somewhat present" during meetings, while 75 percent of other avatars looked "very or somewhat present."This has prompted Microsoft to think that avatars could serve as a realistic alternative to group meetings, rather than the current option of turning the camera on or off. The first version of the avatar will have artificial intelligence translate voice prompts, but after that, it will rely on cameras and hand tracking. Virtual and augmented reality headsets with more cameras and motion sensors could also help create more expressive characters as team apps evolve, Microsoft said.
But these avatars aren't the same as the virtual reality Microsoft uses with Altspace VR: the avatars look more realistic, less cartoonish, but not at all realistic. The available immersive Spaces will be limited when next year's preview is released, but businesses may eventually build their virtual office environments.
Microsoft points to Accenture, an early partner, as an example of where their vision is heading. Accenture has a suite of virtual meeting Spaces that remote workers can log in to, either as corporate meeting Spaces or as more casual virtual Spaces like a home version of the office lounge.
Earlier this year, Microsoft unveiled its cross-device Mesh platform for AR, VR, mobile, and PERSONAL computers, aiming to become a bridge between headphones, phones, and laptops, which is also the goal of Mark Zuckerberg's metadata-focused Meta, and companies like Apple may soon start making moves. Cross-device and avatar-centric communication will be a hot topic for many companies next year as the vision of the common Meta-universe replaces traditional VR/AR conversations.