We’re back with TechWatch, in which Nigel Stott casts his eye over the tech that’s coming our way in 2022. Hybrid working will continue to be a dominant theme in the year ahead and it is still very much Microsoft who are leading the way on this. We therefore focus in this edition on the two giants of hybrid collaboration – Microsoft and Zoom.

Mesh for Microsoft Teams

In a recent article, Microsoft’s own productivity experts explained that they had noticed two new trends following the global pandemic.

First, the myth that remote workers were less productive than workers in the office was completely dispelled and secondly, we’re all missing each other!

That last point is very pertinent. It’s those chance encounters we have walking down the office corridor, chatting about our kids and holidays in the office kitchen or nipping out to lunch with a colleague. The social aspect of the workplace helps embed the fabric of business culture. Alongside this, we often read body language to understand the points our colleagues are trying to make.

The technology that is available to us means online meetings are easy to conduct from home but there is so much we miss out on. However, the moments that allow us to build relationships are often lost sat in front of a camera.

Mesh for Microsoft Teams is a way of overcoming some of these issues with a mixed reality (MR) concept that utilises virtual reality to transform the remote working experience. With Mesh, Teams users can collaborate in virtual areas, working with 3D content utilising mixed reality glasses and VR headsets.

There are fundamental features that make this significantly different to other virtual reality applications, however. The Mesh experience is built on three key areas:

  • AltspaceVR – In 2017, Microsoft acquired this social VR technology with the sole purpose of using its IP for Mesh.
  • Immersive Teams features such as Together mode – Mesh will further extend the Together mode and Presenter mode meeting and conferencing capabilities.
  • The Microsoft vision for the metaverse – Microsoft has been working on mixed reality technologies for over a decade and Mesh for Teams is an important move towards their goal.

So exactly what features can we expect in Mesh for Teams?

  • Holoportation creates a holographic image of the user in a location that can be controlled in such a way that it interacts with the surroundings in that location. For example, a colleague sitting in another location can “see” you without the need to commute, and you will be able to communicate via facial expressions, body language, audio and gestures.
  • 3D Avatars allow you to create a 3D image of yourself that is as true-to-life or as customised as you like. For example, you may choose to create an avatar that looks exactly like you. Alternatively, you may alter attributes like hair colour, as a form of personal expression. Some of this technology is already in use, in Together mode and also the Mesh overlay – if a user doesn’t want to use their webcam, Mesh creates a 3D avatar to replace them in Teams meetings.
  • Audio Cues – the audio will inform your facial animation using audio cues to represent your facial expressions.
  • Workplace – The Mesh for Teams experience focuses on two areas – the virtual representation of users and the virtual representation of workplaces. Firms will be able to create their own workplaces inside Mesh where Teams meetings and collaboration sessions can be hosted.

Will this take off? Well, the concept is an interesting and creative solution for sure. However, it will need to be supported by hardware that could be expensive. We also must consider the extent to which people may be returning to the office later this year. One to watch.

Where does this leave other providers, such as Zoom?

At the beginning of the pandemic, Microsoft Teams and Zoom were locked head-to-head as the video collaboration tool of choice. Zoom was very much winning that battle in the early days with many features that Microsoft Teams was left without.

Where do the Microsoft developments leave Zoom now?
Zoom has made some leaps with their technology to cater for the new hybrid world, such as their Virtual receptionist feature that can be used with Zooms kiosk mode. This feature allows staff at home or other remote locations to interact with on-site visitors.

Workspace reservation is also a highly useful piece of functionality that allows staff to view a map of the office and reserve desks online.

Whilst Zoom isn’t making the transition to mixed reality concepts, they do have some new features coming soon to further enhance their offering:

  • Huddle Mode – This feature provides a visual representation of individuals in a channel, giving teams a sense of togetherness while they chat and collaborate.
  • The Zoom Whiteboard – A little behind Microsoft, the new Zoom whiteboard allows participants to collaborate from anywhere, even when they’re not in a meeting.
  • The Video Engagement Centre – This will be an intuitive, cloud-based solution that enables users to connect to experts and clients over video.

Zoom is very much focusing on what it does best – which is providing a high quality 2D video collaboration experience. They are also operating heavily in the healthcare sector, providing bespoke experiences for patients seeking medical attention with virtual waiting rooms and consultation functionality.

The hybrid technology market is moving fast and we’re likely to see further innovations over the course of 2022.

Whilst using virtual reality in law firms may seem unlikely to some, there is a whole generation of future legal services consumers who are very comfortable with this kind of technology. It will be interesting to see what takes hold over the next five years.

Written by…

Nigel Stott

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