Microsoft Mesh Empowers A Heterogeneous Holographic Collaboration

on March 3, 2021

On day one of the winter edition of Ignite, Microsoft announced the launch of Microsoft Mesh, a new collaboration platform powered by Azure, that allows people to have a shared virtual experience on a variety of devices from Mixed Reality (MR) and Virtual Reality (VR) headsets to PCs and Macs and phones. In his opening remarks, CEO Satya Nadella compared Microsoft Mesh to Xbox Live’s launch in 2002. The service made online multiplayer gaming for consoles mainstream by making it easier for developers to connect their games to the internet. The launch’s result was a rapid growth in online multiplayer titles for the Xbox and Xbox 360, giving Microsoft an advantage over Sony and Nintendo for years. It will be interesting to see how Mesh will change the approach taken by companies like Spatial, a brand that many already associate with virtual collaboration. In my mind, a common platform is the only way to achieve a level of collaboration that can be genuinely inclusive and natural. Yet, I realize all too well that business models sometimes get in the way, and it is much easier for Microsoft to focus on a common platform when monetization comes not from the platform itself but the cloud that powers it.

Microsoft’s Alex Kipman, the mind behind Kinect and HoloLens, spent an hour on the keynote stage talking about the opportunities this platform opens up as several guests from the science and entertainment business, all appearing in holographic form, bore witness to his belief that the future is paved with potential for shared virtual experiences.

I had the opportunity to experience the keynote, not through my PC, as I have been accustomed to for the past year, but as an avatar by the edge of the stage where Kipman’s hologram stood. While Kipman looked like himself, my fellow participants and I appeared as much more basic AlspaceVR avatars. The fact that I could not tell who was in the audience, even if I was aware that there were other fellow analysts and reporters I knew, did not make the experience less engaging. I could see people moving around, using emojis to react to the presentation, and even being annoying when they teleported themselves too close for comfort.

It is not a secret that I am not a great fan of VR. I usually find the effort I put into setup and the experience always to outweigh the perceived value I get from it. So I was surprised to find the keynote experience quite engaging. While there was still a gimmicky side to it, like having a whale shark circling over my head, it clearly gave me an idea of what events like Ignite could be like in the future. More importantly, though, it showed me what collaboration might be like. Maybe it is because I have not been in a room with as many people in over a year, but the experience did feel more personal than watching it on a computer screen. Having experienced HoloLens as well, I can certainly say I prefer the holographic experience in the room I am in, especially when it comes to collaboration. When working with someone, the experience is created more so by the interaction you have than the environment. This is why we have been struggling so much with remote work during the pandemic.

One of the aspects of workflows and collaboration I have been highlighting over the past year is how heterogeneous the set of applications and operating systems we work with every day really is. Whether you are a Microsoft Office or a Google Workspace user, you are most likely jumping between the two environments and using apps like Zoom or Slack on top, even if both productivity suites offer chat and video solutions. This might be because of personal preference or because of the people you work with. Either way, it is rare to be all in with just one solution. You might be able to do it within your organization but not when you work with external people.

Now think about a real-life meeting. While our work might be on a PC, a Mac, or a phone, shared across several apps, what we bring to the meeting is, first and foremost, us. Now think about how not having a common platform would limit that experience. Mesh offers developers a full suite of AI-powered tools for avatars, session management, spatial rendering, synchronization across multiple users, and “holoportation” to build collaborative solutions in mixed reality. More importantly, however, Mesh allows people to meet others where they are. The ability to benefit from this future even without a top-of-the-line device like HoloLens means that, hopefully, we will all have a seat at the table. Mesh also guarantees consistency in the way I show up to my meetings. I am me, and in real life, I show up in the same way. This is, of course, critical if you want to create a realistic experience, and right now, it is not possible. The way I showed up at a Spatial meeting a few weeks ago was very different from how I materialized at the Ignite keynote. It goes without saying that these inconsistencies prevent you from creating a genuine connection with the people you interact with.

The proximity with our office co-worker will make collaboration easier, but at a societal level as well. I loved what filmmaker James Cameron (Avatar, the movie) said about MR driving more empathy because we can share more with someone. Again, think about the past twelve months and how being in your colleagues’ home office, kitchen, or living room helped us increase our empathy, and that was simply through a screen.

Satya Nadella wrapped up his opening remarks with one of his favorite lines used to describe the possibilities for HoloLens: “When you change the way you see the world, you change the world you see.” It will certainly be fascinating to see what people build on Microsoft Mesh. Still, there is no doubt in my mind that building a platform that brings different devices together is an excellent example of a growth mindset; something Nadella has instilled throughout the company.