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As is typical of Microsoft’s annual Ignite conference, the company revealed a number of product announcements that can take weeks or months before organizations get access to them. This year was no exception. The company announced a number of updates to Teams, gave Microsoft 365 and Azure a lot of attention and plotted its course for the next year as its digital workplace momentum continues.

One announcement that stood out above them all so far — and this is an opinion — is the new mixed reality platform Mesh. According to Microsoft, Mesh enables people to share "presence" experiences from anywhere. While there are many obvious applications for this, initially it looks set to be the future of Teams and any other collaboration or communication tool Microsoft will offer in the future. Mesh is a mixed reality platform that develops and builds on Microsoft’s work in AR and VR.

 

In a post about the release, Microsoft described Mesh as a platform that allows anyone to have shared virtual experiences on a variety of devices. “This has been the dream for mixed reality, the idea from the very beginning,” explained Alex Kipman, technical fellow for AI and Mixed Reality in the cloud and AI group at Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft. “You can actually feel like you’re in the same place with someone sharing content or you can teleport from different mixed reality devices and be present with people even when you’re not physically together.”

While it is unclear yet how the release of Mesh will progress, Microsoft has already unveiled two available apps built on the Microsoft Mesh platform. Those include a preview of the Microsoft Mesh app for HoloLens, which allows team members to remotely collaborate and is available for download. There is also the Mesh-enabled AltspaceVR, which will allow companies to hold meetings and work gatherings in virtual reality with enterprise-grade security features including secure sign-ins, session management and privacy compliance.

The workplace scenarios where these kinds of technologies can be applied are obvious, and even with the two unveiled apps, Microsoft is clearly directing this towards Teams to enhance employee experience and enable easier and more realistic interactions. Microsoft, yet again, has underlined the importance of Teams to its ongoing digital workplace strategy.

Initially, Mesh will present people as virtual avatars taken from the AltspaceVR social network that Microsoft acquired back in 2017. Mesh will eventually support what Microsoft calls “holoportation,” allowing people to appear as themselves in a virtual space.

Over time, the company said it expects organizations will be able to choose from a growing set of Microsoft Mesh-enabled applications built by external developers and partners, and to benefit from planned integration with Microsoft products such as Microsoft Teams and Dynamics 365.

Just two years ago, we saw AR and VR making an entry into the digital workplace. The global mixed reality market size at that time was expected to reach $2.8 billion by 2023, rising at a market growth of 77.3% until 2023. Mixed reality (MR), also referred to as hybrid reality, is the technology that is used to merge real and virtual worlds and produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time. The fact that Microsoft is now ready to start pushing this tech into the workplace seems to support those predictions. 

Making Meetings Better With Intelligent Speakers

Leaving aside the upgrades to Teams, there were other updates that are likely to make meeting rooms better. The principle one is the release of Intelligent Speakers that can identify up to 10 voices in a Teams meeting and automatically create a transcript of the meeting with or without identifying who is speaking.

The concept is not new though as Microsoft first demonstrated this exact scenario at Build in 2018. The speakers were created in partnership with EPOS and Yealink and allow attendees to use the transcription to follow talks or capture actions by identifying who in the room said what.

Whether you are working remotely or following the meeting in the conference room, users follow the entire meeting without confusion. To enable privacy and security, users are in full control and can turn attribution on or off at any time.

But that is not all. Microsoft is also announcing the first monitors certified for Microsoft Teams notably the Dell Video conferencing monitor, and the Poly 21. These new monitors integrate critical conferencing hardware like a microphone, speaker, camera, and light right into the monitor, so employees can simply attach their PC via USB to get started on collaboration and maximize productivity.

Finally, in respect of Teams it is worth noting that Microsoft is already releasing PowerPoint Live in Microsoft Teams. This will enable presenters to deliver more impactful and engaging presentations. Presenters will now be able to lead meetings with notes, slides, meeting chat, and participants all in a single view

Meeting attendees can personalize their experience by privately navigating the content at their own pace or using the screen reader to make content accessible. PowerPoint Live is now available in Teams. Microsoft also released a lot more and pointed to a lot more on the way all of which will be clear by the end of Ignite today, Thurs. 4th.

BlueJeans Opens up Its Teams Gateway Wider

One of the major elements of Ignite every year is the number of announcements that are made by partner companies or by companies that are feeding into the Microsoft environment. This year, even though the conference is virtual, was no exception. Basking Ridge, NJ-based BlueJeans by Verizon is one such company. It announced new enhancements to its BlueJeans Gateway for Microsoft Teams solution (BlueJeans Gateway), which will give organizations the ability to extend their Microsoft Teams collaboration capabilities — regardless of where employees are located.

Verizon Business acquired BlueJeans Network, a cloud-based provider of video conferencing and event presentation services, about a year ago to provide a platform for video conferencing to compete with likes of Zoom and Slack.

The BlueJeans Gateway for Microsoft Teams is a pure SaaS solution that enables customers to use their existing endpoints to join Microsoft Teams meetings from any conference room or huddle space.  Layering onto BlueJeans’ existing feature set, the Gateway updates include greater management controls to further simplify and enhance room-based Microsoft Teams meetings. There is a bunch of new additions here including an auto-join capability that ensures compliance with COVID-related protocols, calendar integration in the cloud and even China premium access through a dedicated network to handle video conferencing traffic into and out of China. 

Elsewhere, Verizon has also been named one of Microsoft’s launch partners for Operator Connect, an initiative to create “a direct peering relationship between the Microsoft Teams platform and Verizon’s trunking network.

Google Gives Workspace New Communication Muscle

Away from Ignite, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google is adding a bunch of new features to Google Workspace. This is not the first time Google has added to Workspace since it rebranded five months ago but there is enough here to offer a serious alternative to the Microsoft productivity environment.

The big announcement this time around is that the Mountain View, Calif.-based company is making it easier to join Google Meet calls from third-party video conferencing systems. Specifically, if you are using third-party video conferencing hardware with a third-party calendar service, you can now enable your users to join Meet video calls with just one click from the device.

If you are using third-party video conferencing hardware with Google Calendar, you can now choose to have SIP meeting codes (used for signaling and controlling multimedia communication sessions) automatically added to new Calendar events.

According to Google the update provides a common way to let video conferencing systems know how to join call. To date, many users have found it difficult to use. With this launch, we are giving admins the option to automatically add SIP join information to new third-party calendar events — thus making it easier for third-party hardware solutions to find and join Meet calls.

But that is not all Google is offering. It is also introducing data regions for Google Workspace, which will allow organizations to choose a specific geographic location — in the US, in Europe, or globally distributed — for their covered data at rest to help meet organizational or compliance needs. According to Google, it is now extending data regions coverage to user indices for Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, and Slides for the US data region.

Finally, Google has also announced that it is giving teams and organizations more ways to connect and collaborate by adding Google Chat, Google Calendar, and Jamboard to Google Workspace Essentials at no additional cost.

According to a post about the new releases — and there are others too — Google has been focused on how to make the new hybrid work model support collaboration and enhance inclusion and wellbeing for Google employees. It said it is especially interested in what it calls collaboration equity, or the ability to contribute equally, regardless of location, role, experience level, language, and device preference.

“We’ve been experimenting with ways to bridge the gap between the in-person and the “somewhere else” by pushing our technology and the physical spaces of our campuses to be more inclusive. We’re looking for ways to maximize participation everywhere we can — from personal desk space to conference rooms to group collaboration areas,” the blog announcing the releases states.

The company adds that this set of releases is just part of Google Workspace’s mission to enable a hybrid work experience that enhances collaboration, strengthens human connection, and improves employee experience—wherever they are and however they work. There will be more on this soon.