Editor's Note: This article has been updated and edited to reflect updates and announcements to Microsoft Mesh and its impact on the evolving workplace.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and technical fellow Alex Kipman unveiled Mesh at the company’s Ignite Conference in March 2021. The platform is Microsoft's latest mixed reality offering built on Azure. It creates a space for real-time collaboration which participants can join using HoloLens 2, virtual reality (VR) headsets, smartphones, tablets or PCs. Microsoft Mesh aims to improve remote collaboration and provide immersive training and communication tools for businesses and consumers.
Microsoft has since released updates to Mesh in August 2021 and more recently at the November 2021 Ignite conference. Let’s explore those updates within the context of the initial release.
Virtual Meetings Using Mixed Reality
Kipman told the March 2021 Ignite audience that Microsoft aims to provide developers and organizations with a toolkit to build on the platform. The toolkit can be used to build avatars, do spatial rendering, manage sessions, synchronize participants and produce live volumetric videos (or holoportation). Businesses can use those apps for meetings, collaboration, teaching or even remote troubleshooting.
At November’s Ignite event, the company revealed a practical example of this kind of application in Mesh for Microsoft Teams. The application, expected to roll out in the first half of 2022, allows people in different locations to use all of the Teams collaborative tools in a common holographic experience. The announcement came, as interest in the metaverse is increasing following Facebook’s dramatic shift into the space.
With Mesh for Microsoft Teams, companies would have the option to create metaverses — immersive spaces — for teams to interact with each other via avatars of themselves. The initial rollout will come with a number of pre-built immersive spaces for companies to use immediately, including for meetings and social gatherings.
Now Playing on the Holodeck
Back in March, Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Lalibertédemonstrated the power and possibilities of Mesh by appearing using holoportation. This technique uses 3-D capture technology to beam a lifelike image of a person into a virtual scene.The March Ignite event was Microsoft's first keynote experience designed entirely for mixed reality. It allowed people attending the conference from around the world to experience the show as avatars watching events unfold in a shared holographic world.
Kipman appeared on the Ignite virtual stage as a fully realized holoportation of himself. He narrated the show’s opening experience in real-time as rays of light simulated his physical body. John Hanke, CEO and founder of augmented reality company Niantic, also joined Kipman. He used his remote appearance to show how the public can use Microsoft Mesh for shared experiences.
Niantic is currently crowdsourcing 3-D maps of the world for its Lightship AR platform. The company has enlisted players from Ingress and other games to capture AR content using their phones or tablets. Niantic publishes content generated by the players, so developers can use it to create AR experiences.
The Result of Years of Development
According to Microsoft, the new platform is the result of years of research and development into areas like hand and eye-tracking and HoloLens technology. This research allowed for the creation of persistent holograms and artificial intelligence models that can produce expressive avatars. Built on Azure, Mesh will also include the platform's enterprise-grade security and privacy features. It will also include its computational resources, data, AI and mixed reality services.
Microsoft also offered previews of the Microsoft Mesh app for HoloLens. The app lets team members remotely collaborate and is available for download now. Users can also request access to a new version of Mesh-enabled AltspaceVR. This platform lets companies hold meetings and work gatherings in virtual reality. AltspaceVR features enterprise-grade security features including secure sign-ins, session management and privacy compliance.
Microsoft Mesh was publicly released in April 2021. The product has been well-received by businesses, with early reviewers calling it the virtual future of Teams meetings — a prediction which was born out during November’s Ignite. In the case of Mesh for Teams, the company claims no special equipment is needed. People can join a space from a smartphone, laptop or mixed reality headset.
Mesh in Microsoft's Own Words
Greg Sullivan, director of mixed reality at Microsoft, explained the concept behind Mesh during the initial release. He described how it might be used in a subsequent Twitter Spaces meeting hosted by NextReality. One of the core capabilities of Mesh, he said, is a sense of presence. Users can feel like they are in a physical location that is hundreds or thousands of miles away. Because holograms are 3-D, there's a more powerful sense of connection than users get with simple video conferencing.
Microsoft Mesh lets users interact with virtual items that look as if they're a part of the real-world environment. They can grab, move and manipulate holograms just like they were really there. This simple idea can make virtual meetings feel real and create a stronger sense of presence.
Sullivan explains that the company started with the AltspaceVR avatar system and brought that over onto Azure. AltspaceVR is a social VR platform founded in 2013. It was one of the first mainstream VR social platforms. In 2017, Microsoft acquired AltspaceVR, and the company is now part of the Mixed Reality division within Microsoft's Cloud and AI group.
Thanks to this cloud presence, no matter what device a user is on, they should be able to participate to some degree in Mesh. There's no need to have a powerful PC. Mesh makes any application an immersive, collaborative mixed reality application by plugging into the Mesh SDK. That app could run on HoloLens, on Oculus, or using Windows Mixed Reality headsets.
Recent Mesh Update
Microsoft released a small update to Mesh and the Mesh App for HoloLens in August 2021, which included an improved UI and several new features such as co-location, eye-gaze interaction and voice- and keyboard-enabled sticky notes.
A Booming Market for AR, VR and Mixed Reality
We are still in the early days for AR and VR in the digital workplace, but this is a market that is set to grow rapidly. The Microsoft Mesh and Azure combination makes VR accessible to any developer that wants to add AR to their apps.
Two years ago, Research and Markets predicted that the global mixed reality market size would reach $2.8 billion by 2023. It predicts growth at a rate of 77.3% until 2023. A recent report by the UK-based online share researcher BuyShares also predicted significant growth in the market. When combined, the global AR, VR and mixed reality (MR) market is projected to hit a $124.4 billion value by 2023 — a 305% increase in two years.
The Growth of Consumer AR
AR apps have come a long way since the introduction of Snapchat filters and Pokémon Go. The report mentioned smartphone apps aimed at the individual consumer and more sophisticated data visualization tools used by enterprises to interpret big data analytics. It noted that AR technology has found its use in many industries. The growing edge computing market and 5G connectivity make the technology much more viable, letting users benefit from a new generation of AR apps.
By the end of the next year, the AR industry is projected to be worth around $58.7 billion. The following years are expected to witness even more impressive growth in the use of AR, VR and MR technology. By 2025, the market value is expected to surge to almost $300 billion.
This is supported by other research from Ohio-based Thrive Analytics and ARtillery Intelligence. According to their research, 29% of consumers have used mobile augmented reality. More importantly, they are using it often: 59% of mobile AR users engage at least weekly and 78% at least monthly. This is a telling indication of mobile AR's potential. Active use is a key mobile app success factor and is tied closely to revenue metrics.
Gaming and Entertainment With Augmented Reality
The top mobile AR app category is gaming. This is followed by social media, driven by popular AR apps and features such as Pokémon Go and Snapchat AR lenses. Both categories will continue to lead mobile AR in the near future. Other software use cases are already emerging, such as everyday utilities for visualizing products in one's space or having virtual makeovers as part of an e-commerce shopping experience.
"AR and VR are still in early adoption phases," said Thrive Analytics managing partner Jason Peaslee in a statement. "There are still technology challenges, but we think AR and VR have the ability to transform the way people work, connect and learn. We’re excited about the prospects and committed to measuring them."
Virtual reality and augmented reality are becoming more mainstream. Mid-range phones are capable of delivering AR experiences. The Oculus Go can be used to livestream VR content for users who do not have a powerful PC. This means AR and VR experiences are more accessible today than they were a few years ago.
Microsoft Mesh as a Learning and Collaboration Enabler
So, is Mesh the platform that will bring AR, VR and mixed reality (MR) to the workplace? The release of Mesh is further confirmation of the growing adoption of AR and MR in the workplace. Doug Stephen, president of the enterprise learning division at CGS, believes such platforms are the future of remote work.
Companies are finding AR/MR to be the antidote to "Zoom fatigue," a loss of engagement resulting from a heavy cadence of video calls. One specific area in which the introduction of AR/MR tools could have a positive effect is learning and development.
“There is a growing understanding that not all employees can be taught solely through virtual team meetings or video calls," Stephen said. "Business leaders striving to create more meaningful, deeper connections for their employees will implement these AR/MR technologies," he explained. He notes that they can be used to provide an on-the-job training experience while staff continues to work remotely.
More Than Just an Evolution of SharePoint Spaces
Let's not forget that Mesh is not the company's first attempt to introduce mixed reality to the workplace. Microsoft released SharePoint Spaces in 2018 to diversify the ways employees collaborate and with external users. However advanced and unique the feature might have seemed back then, it did not gain much popularity. This could be because it could only be implemented as part of SharePoint. Alternatively, the issue could be that organizations did not understand Spaces’ use scenarios clearly, said Anna Muchnik, digital marketing manager at Itransition.
At the time of the initial release, Muchnik noted that Microsoft Mesh is still a new product and is relatively untested. This means it's too early to tell whether it will revolutionize remote work and collaboration. Compared to SharePoint Spaces, the new product looks more advantageous and sophisticated. At the same time, enterprises should be ready to adopt and support an Azure-based solution.
With this week’s more recent announcement of Mesh for Teams, we are starting to get a glimpse of how the promise of Mesh, hinted at in the spring, will become reality in the not too distant future.