Microsoft has taken a low-key approach to the metaverse and its development. At Ignite this year, it outlined how its vision for this new way of thinking about the internet will emerge and what it intends to do with it.
The metaverse is the hypothesized next iteration of the internet, supporting decentralized, persistent online 3-D virtual environments. This virtual space will be accessible through virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, smartphones, PCs, and game consoles.
First coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science-fiction novel “Snow Crash,” the metaverse he describes is a virtual reality-based successor to the internet. In the novel, people use digital avatars of themselves to explore the online world, often as a way of escaping a dystopian reality. Here we are just about 30 years later and that vision is on the way to becoming a reality. However, what is emerging is something that is closer to the digital world and workplace that exists now than anything Stephenson imagined all those years ago.
Facebook, Microsoft Metaverses
While a number of companies have been working on different aspects of it in recent years, over the past couple of weeks, San Francisco-based Facebook and Redmond, WA-based Microsoft have spent a lot of time talking up this new future. In fact, the vision of a digital future is so important that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has rebranded Facebook, changed the name of the company to Meta. He explained and defined the metaverse as a hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world. It will let users, he said in a letter he posted online, share immersive experiences with other people even when they can’t be together. However, Zuckerberg didn’t really go into the practical details or explain the how’s and whys of it.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has taken a more lowkey approach and outlined how it will be pull existing technologies into its vision of the metaverse. In fact, over the course of the two days Ignite conference, Microsoft unveiled or launched, according to its own figure about 90 new services and updates. From a technology perspective, the foundation blocks of all these additions is Microsoft Cloud and the company’s vision for a digital workplace.
In a blog post summarizing the Microsoft vision, Frank X. Shaw, corporate VP of communications for Microsoft points out that the Microsoft Cloud will provide a comprehensive set of resources designed to power metaverses, with IoT capabilities that enable customers to create “digital twins” of physical objects in the cloud.
It will also use Microsoft Mesh to build a shared sense of presence on devices and use AI-powered resources to create natural interactions through speech and vision machine learning models. In fact the Mesh element of it is very close to the original idea of the metaverse. Using Mesh, everyone in a meeting can be present without being physically present using personalized avatars and immersive spaces that can be accessed from any device, with no special equipment needed.
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These are the two different visions from two major tech companies. For Facebook, it is an online social experience expanded into 3 dimensions. For Microsoft, it is connecting the digital and the physical world to enable shared experiences between both.
What we see here are two different approaches to the same end goal, said Luke Wilson, CEO and founder of San Francisco-based ManageXR, said. Microsoft is going with a top-down strategy, first integrating their metaverse concept into their enterprise offerings and connecting people in mixed reality through work, while Meta's recent announcements point towards a bottom-up strategy, bringing all consumers into a metaverse that can then grow into a place for both work and play.
Each of these strategies leans on the company's expertise; Microsoft knows enterprise and Meta knows social. It's hard to say which of these visions is more realistic because they're both very similar. “I don't think you're seeing two separate metaverses being created and owned by two different companies. Instead, you're seeing two companies building towards a shared reality,” he said. “The bottom line is that both of these companies build the hardware and software that enable the metaverse to exist at all. We'll see these various technologies further integrate into our lives from both sides simultaneously.” The result, he adds, will be a workplace holding more meetings in mixed reality at the same time that you'll find your social interactions further augmented by the digital world.
Software or Social?
There is another difference. Microsoft, fundamentally, started as a software company, whilst Facebook was initiated around the idea of a social network, Ellen Stee of UK-based Intelligent Decisioning.
Microsoft allowed for production of documents and files and has now evolved to allowing collaborating on those very files. Facebook comes from a place of allowing connections to be made and, whilst extremely valuable and essential to success both in business and personal lives, Microsoft has had a massive head start on creating a collaborative environment where people can work independently and together. “This translates into the world of Xbox gaming where players can enjoy games together, so rather than Facebook which, along with Instagram and it's other subcompanies, is primarily a sharing platform, Microsoft is a collaborative platform,” she said.
“That is why its idea of a metaverse is far more realistic and based off their experience of when individuals and teams meet the digital world," said Stee.
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Metaverse Is Not a Zero-Sum Game
The environments that Facebook and Microsoft are creating will compliment each other, create increased awareness, and fuel rapid acceptance and adoption, said Tim Parkin, a Sanford, FL-based digital marketing consultant. Facebook may be leading the metaverse charge, he said, but Microsoft will capitalize on it in much bigger ways, at least early on. The acceptance and comfortability with remote working and virtual events creates the natural progression for Microsoft to create business environments that compliment and empowers these activities.
“In order to survive, the metaverse must provide tangible value beyond entertainment,” he said. “Facebook will rely on advertising and product placements where Microsoft will be able to tie real business value and outcomes to the metaverse (productivity, culture, communication). Bringing the metaverse to Microsoft's suite of products has profound implications for the business world. Just as Zoom became a billion dollar company during COVID, Microsoft will benefit handsomely from the metaverse migration.
Facebook or Microsoft?
So, Microsoft or Facebook? Adam Fingerman, Chief Experience argues that they are both realistic versions of the future depending on whether you are looking at the near future or the distant future.
The Facebook (Meta) vision more closely matches the science fiction future version, a very distant future, where people people spend most of their lives in immersive virtual worlds. hat's a consumer future — and Facebook has always been more appealing to consumers — despite their attempts to break into the workplace.
On the other hand, Microsoft has always been very strong in the enterprise, and their collaboration and productivity tools are still the top choice in the workplace. Teams has an installed base that overshadows Slack by 10 times, and Office continues to dominate. Starting with those as the foundation and adding more immersive collaboration capabilities make complete sense for the near future, especially as we continue to be in a fully remote or hybrid in-person/remote office environment.
“The journey to the metaverse is a marathon and not a sprint," he said.