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Microsoft will let people use avatars in office-like settings in Teams next year to deliver what it claims is a more engaging collaboration environment for meetings.
At its Ignite conference this week, the company said the capabilities will come with integrating Teams and the VR and augmented reality (AR) platform Mesh in the first half of 2022. The combination will bring personalized, cartoon-like avatars and virtual meeting spaces to Teams on PCs, mobile devices, and VR and AR headsets.
With the Mesh-powered Teams, employees can join regular video meetings with their avatars instead of turning on their cameras. The avatars can also interact in simulated conference rooms or lounges to virtually replicate the office experience. Workers will pull Microsoft 365 content into the virtual spaces so that people can review documents or presentations with their colleagues.
By moving collaboration to a virtual space, Microsoft wants to give people the sense that they're together.
"Human presence is the ultimate connection," and re-creating that presence is vital to making remote meetings more engaging, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said during his keynote address.
Microsoft debuted Mesh in March. The software is a platform on which developers can build AR and VR apps. From the beginning, the company noted the collaboration possibilities for Mesh, showing how workers might confer on a 3D product design.
The Teams-Mesh integration is "a strategic initiative to bring [Microsoft's] mixed reality and HoloLens [VR headset] investments together with live meetings and video calls," said Constellation Research analyst Dion Hinchcliffe.
VR and AR collaboration has been a hot topic for tech firms. Last week, Facebook rebranded itself as Meta to reflect its focus on the metaverse, defined as persistent virtual spaces where people interact using technology like VR and AR. Facebook has a VR collaboration product, Horizon Workrooms, in open beta.
Microsoft competitor Cisco plans to incorporate AR into its Webex collaboration suite, offering photorealistic 3D holograms instead of simple avatars. Bluejeans by Verizon has a simulated office space in the works for 2022.
Zoom does not have an AR/VR product. Instead, it plans to add its video meetings and whiteboards to Horizon Workrooms next year.
Collaboration vendors have entered a VR and AR market that IDC predicts will grow 54% annually, from $12 billion in 2020 to $73 billion in 2024. 451 Research analyst Raul Castanon said some companies already use AR and VR technology, but for limited uses like telehealth, training and tech support.
"It is still early days for widespread adoption in the enterprise," he said.
In other Ignite news, Microsoft said an upcoming Teams Connect feature would let employees collaborate with customers and suppliers outside their company. In early 2022, admins can set up Teams channels that span multiple organizations, allowing workers to chat, share documents and hold meetings. Microsoft said IT would use Azure Active Directory to configure permissions for external collaboration.
"[Teams Connect] means that all employees across multiple companies can easily collaborate as one extended team," said Microsoft executive Frank Shaw.
Microsoft will also let enterprise Teams users chat with people using personal Teams accounts. The capability will be available by the end of the year.
Microsoft announced a slate of other Teams improvements at the conference:
- In the first half of 2022, workers can join GoToMeeting and Bluejeans meetings from their Teams Rooms conference-room devices. The devices can already join Zoom and Cisco Webex meetings.
- Microsoft will add a virtual green room for Teams webinars early next year. The space will give webinar hosts and presenters a place to talk amongst themselves and monitor attendee chat before the event.
- The company will introduce a webinar feature that will let event hosts limit what the audience sees. Hosts will be able to choose what content and presenters appear on-screen, limiting distractions. The capability will launch in early 2022.
- Microsoft has integrated Teams with event management platform Cvent, letting companies use the latter to handle event registration and agendas on Teams.
- Microsoft will release a co-organizer feature for Teams meetings and webinars by the end of the year. The capability gives up to 10 people the same permissions the meeting organizer has, like changing audio settings and creating polls.
- Microsoft said it would improve Teams chat by allowing more chat messages to appear on the screen, adding new emoji reactions, and scheduling the delivery of messages. Microsoft will roll out the improvements in early 2022.
- The company put Teams IT management tools in preview, giving admins more information on Teams performance. IT will be able to group devices by physical location and identify priority users for closer monitoring.
Mike Gleason is a reporter covering unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily News, Walpole Times, Sharon Advocate and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as a local editor for Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.