Last week, Microsoft’s Alex Kipman, the creator of Kinect and HoloLens, came to my living room to give me jellyfish and sharks. It may sound like I had a strange dream, but it was a meeting made possible by Microsoft’s new mesh platform. I put on a HoloLens 2 headset, joined a virtual meeting room, and Kipman immediately appeared next to my coffee table to demonstrate Microsoft’s vision for the future of VR and AR – or as Microsoft calls it, mixed reality.
It all felt like a Microsoft Teams meeting that will be happening in the future.
Mesh is a collaborative platform that allows anyone to share virtual experiences on a variety of devices. “This has been mixed reality’s dream from the start,” explains Kipman. “You can actually feel like you’re in the same place with someone sharing content, or you can teleport from various mixed reality devices and be present with people even when you’re not physically together.”
First, Mesh will present people as virtual avatars from the AltspaceVR social network Microsoft acquired it back in 2017. Mesh will eventually support what Microsoft calls “holoportation” so that people can appear as themselves in a virtual space.
During my hour-long meeting in Microsoft Mesh, I constantly felt that this could be a future version of Microsoft Teams. Kipman appeared next to me as an avatar and gave me virtual jellyfish and sharks. I could reshape the animals, give them back, or just put them in front of me. While we weren’t working on a great design or 3D model, it felt far more immersive than the Zoom video calls I have to take part in almost every day.
It was the next best thing to have Kipman in my room and remind me of it my first experience with HoloLens. Microsoft originally demonstrated HoloLens using a joint Skype call, where a technician can help you troubleshoot wiring. It felt like the promise of augmented reality, and Microsoft Mesh seems like the natural next step.
“You can think of a mesh-enabled Microsoft team that is all about having colleagues from around the world working together as if you and I were in the same physical location,” says Kipman. “Mesh enables teams to give organizations the ability to have essentially mixed-reality meetings with everyone in the same room, so this is something you should think about in an environment with mesh-enabled teams.”
Mesh is not just a virtual meeting app, however. It is a complete platform built on top of Azure that Microsoft hopes developers will have access to. Microsoft hopes architects, engineers, and designers will see the promise of mesh, especially during a pandemic when it’s difficult to work with physical 3D models without everyone in the same room.
Microsoft also makes Mesh available on a variety of devices, including HoloLens 2, most virtual reality headsets, tablets, smartphones, and PCs. A preview of the Microsoft Mesh app for HoloLens 2 will be available today, along with a preview version of AltspaceVR that is mesh-enabled. Microsoft plans to integrate Mesh into Teams and Dynamics 365 in the future to make the unique meeting experience I had a reality for more people.
Microsoft certainly believes mesh will be the next big thing for mixed reality. CEO Satya Nadella compared the new platform to Xbox Live in his keynote address at Ignite today. “Think about what Xbox Live did for games. We went from single player to multiplayer and created communities that helped people connect and achieve something together,” said Nadella. “Now imagine that the same thing happened to the mixed reality.”
The big obstacle to Microsoft Mesh is the cost of HoloLens devices and VR headsets. While you can jump from a 2D screen like a phone or PC, it’s nowhere near as impressive as using a headset. Microsoft has tried to fill this gap in the past ambitious projects like Minecraft earthand offers AR experiences on mobile phones. The special project did not workand it’s not clear whether Microsoft Mesh will resonate with users as well.
Microsoft Mesh needs strong developer support or offers experiences you can’t find anywhere else in VR to gain momentum. Microsoft has recruited filmmaker James Cameron. Pokémon Go Developer Niantic and co-founder of Cirque du Soleil demonstrate the promise of mesh during today’s Ignite keynote.
A proof-of-concept version of the Pokémon Go Running on the HoloLens 2 and virtual concerts certainly show what is now possible with Microsoft Mesh. Reality will now depend on the popularity of headsets or Microsoft’s ability to commercialize this new technology to companies that prefer hybrid ways of working as the world moves out of a pandemic.
Update, February 2, 11:40 a.m. ET: Article updated with comments from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.