Microsoft Mesh Aims to Make Mixed Reality Mainstream
A few weeks ago at Microsoft’s Ignite conference, CEO Satya Nadella and Alex Kipman, a technical fellow with Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, unveiled Mesh, a mixed reality platform that uses the company's Azure platform to build collaborative experiences using HoloLens 2 and other devices for remote participants.
It was appropriate that the presentation was offered as a virtual meeting given that the whole point of Mesh is to give users the ability to interact remotely in virtual rooms and landscapes. The bottom line, Kipman told the audience, is to provide developers and organizations with the tools to build avatars, manage sessions, do spatial rendering, synchronize participants, and produce live volumetric video (or holoportation) for collaborative apps.
Now Playing on the Holodeck
To demonstrate the power and the possibilities, Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté appeared using holoportation, which uses 3D capture technology to beam a lifelike image of a person into a virtual scene. In the company’s first keynote experience designed entirely for mixed reality, people attending the conference from living rooms and home offices around the world could experience the show as avatars watching events unfold in a shared holographic world.
Kipman himself appeared on the Ignite virtual stage as a fully realized holoportation of himself, narrating the show’s opening experience in real time as rays of light simulated his physical body. Filmmaker and ocean explorer James Cameron and John Hanke, CEO and founder of augmented reality company Niantic, also joined Kipman remotely to show how Mesh will be used for shared experiences when it is released publicly.
According to Microsoft, the new platform is the result of years of research and development in areas like hand and eye tracking and HoloLens development to creation of persistent holograms and artificial intelligence models that can create expressive avatars. Built on Azure, it will also include Azure’s enterprise-grade security and privacy features as well as its computational resources, data, AI and mixed reality services.
Microsoft also offered previews of the Microsoft Mesh app for HoloLens, which allows team members to remotely collaborate and is available for download, while users can also request access to a new version of 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 problem is, apart from what was shown at Ignite, little else is known about Mesh and it is likely to be months before future users will be able to offer any kind of insight. But it is a major play for the mixed reality space that could really shake up the world of virtual meetings and even Teams.
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Mesh in Microsoft's Own Words
Greg Sullivan, director of mixed reality at Microsoft explained the concept behind Mesh and 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. This gives users the ability to feel like they are in a physical location that is hundreds or thousands of miles away.
They started with the AltspaceVR avatar system and brought that over onto Azure. AltspaceVR is a social VR platform founded in 2013 that is credited with creating the first social platform for virtual reality. In 2017, it was acquired by Microsoft and is now part of the Mixed Reality division within the company's Cloud and AI group.
Sullivan explained that no matter what device a user is on, they should be able to participate to some degree in Mesh. Mesh makes any application an immersive, collaborative mixed reality application by plugging into the Mesh SDK and adding that capability to an app, he said. That app could run on HoloLens, it could run on Oculus, or it could be in a Windows Mixed Reality.
A Booming Market for AR, VR and Mixed Reality
It is still early days for AR and VR in the digital workplace but this is a market that is set to grow rapidly.
Two years ago, Research and Markets predicted that the global mixed reality market size would reach $2.8 billion by 2023, growing at rate of 77.3% until 2023. A recent report by the UK-based online share researcher BuyShares indicated that growth in the next couple of years will be greater than originally expected. When combined, the global AR, VR and mixed reality (MR) market is expected to continue growing and hit a $124.4. billion value by 2023, a 305% increase in two years.
AR apps have come a long way from Snapchat filters and Pokemon Go, the report said: “From smartphone apps aimed at the individual consumer to more sophisticated data visualization tools used by enterprises to interpret big data analytics, AR technology has found its use in different industries. The growing edge computing market and 5G connectivity made the technology much more viable, allowing users to unveil a new generation of AR apps.”
By the end of the next year, the market value will be around $58.7 billion, while 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.
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This is supported by other research from Kettering, Ohio-based Thrive Analytics and ARtillery Intelligence. According to their research, 29 percent of consumers have used mobile augmented reality. More importantly, they are using it often: 59 percent of mobile AR users engage at least weekly and 78 percent at least monthly. This is a telling indication of mobile AR's potential, given that active use is a key mobile app success factor and tied closely to revenue metrics.
While the top mobile AR app category is gaming, this is followed by social, driven by popular AR apps and features such as Pokemon Go and Snapchat AR lenses. Both categories will continue to lead mobile AR in the near future, but others will emerge such as everyday utilities like visualizing products in one's space 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.”
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Mesh as Learning and Collaboration Enabler
So, is Mesh the platform that is going to bring AR, VR and MR to the workplace? The release of Mesh is further confirmation of the growing adoption of AR and mixed reality MR in the workplace, said Doug Stephen, president of the enterprise learning division at CGS, a New York City-based business applications, learning and outsourcing services company.
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 will 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, such as Microsoft Mesh, to provide an on-the-job training experience while staff continues to work remotely."
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 with each other and with external users. However advanced and unique the feature might have seemed back then, it has not gained much popularity, possibly because it can only be implemented as part of SharePoint or because organizations have not understood Spaces’ use scenarios clearly, said Anna Muchnik, digital marketing manager, at Itransition, an Austin-based software developer.
“Since Microsoft Mesh is yet untested by businesses, it is still too early to say that it will mark a new turn in the corporate mixed reality adoption," Muchnik said. "Compared to SharePoint Spaces, the new product looks more advantageous and sophisticated. At the same time, enterprises should be technologically ready to adopt and support an Azure-based solution, as well as plan their investment in HoloLens to run Microsoft Mesh."
Companies will need a well-thought-out strategy to apply Mesh in daily workflows, whether that is collaboration, learning and development or research. Otherwise it will stay just another promising offering with no real-life application.