The company formerly known as Facebook isn’t the only tech giant trying to sell you on the metaverse. Microsoft is rolling out some new virtual collaboration features designed to make working in a virtual office less terrible or something. In Microsoft’s metaverse version of the office, you’ll use a 3D avatar to represent you, which promises to be infinitely better than keeping your camera on at all hours of the work day.
Let’s back up: The metaverse, as folks like Mark Zuckerberg describe it, is a merging of the virtual and physical worlds. You still have to go to work, but you’re wearing a virtual reality headset and your face is an avatar. Sounds cool, right? Not content to let Facebook (or Meta, whatever we’re calling it now) dominate the metaverse—especially when Microsoft is known for its productivity software—the Office maker is getting in on the action. At the company’s annual Ignite conference, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella described the idea of shared virtual worlds as a completely new platform that will allow people to “embed computing into the real world, and to embed the real world into computing—bringing real presence to any digital space.”
Microsoft has already invested in bringing elements of augmented and virtual reality into the real world, specifically into the office, with a framework called Mesh. Now Microsoft Teams, the company’s video-conferencing and collaboration platform, is part of Mesh.
What this means for real people is that Teams is gaining new customizable 2D and 3D avatars that people can use instead of a traditional profile picture or a video of their face in video conferences. This makes it easier for people to work together either in person or virtually, I guess, although really it just makes it easier to keep your camera off for video calls while your 3D avatar makes interested facial expressions.
Microsoft has also created a collection of pre-built virtual spaces that will be available in Teams, allowing people to choose from different-looking environments to hold meetings in. In the future, Microsoft says Teams users will be able to customize meeting spaces with virtual objects like whiteboards, billboards, and floating displays, while 3D models of a new product or prototype can hover on virtual tables or displays in the middle of the space.
The idea of diving deeper into virtual work might feel like a burden after so many have been working remotely for so long, but Microsoft points out that the use of digital avatars might actually reduce meeting fatigue by making it easier and more acceptable for you to turn off your webcam during meetings.
Microsoft says that users wearing a VR headset like an Oculus Quest 2 (er, Meta Quest 2?) will be able to use customized 3D avatars that will “take audio cues so as you talk your face will animate” along with “animations that bring additional expressivity to the avatars,” including hand movements. And in the future, Microsoft says better sensors will allow Mesh for Teams to work better on all sorts of devices (smartphones, laptops, etc.), while your avatar could make you easier to recognize when jumping between traditional flat 2D meetings and 3D meetings in virtual spaces.
The idea of being even more online is that last thing most people want. But with the pandemic forcing so many of us to work remotely—and many workers hoping to continue working from home or finding a balance between in-office and remote work—at least Microsoft’s metaverse features have some merit. Zuckerberg’s version? Who even knows.