Microsoft has taken its first step toward bringing the metaverse to office life, in the latest sign that some of the biggest tech companies see blending the digital and physical worlds as one of the hottest new trends in computing.
The US software giant said that in the first half of next year, users of its collaborative Teams program will be able to appear as avatars – or animators – in video meetings. Remote workers will also be able to use their avatars to visit virtual workspaces, which will eventually include replicas of employers’ offices.
Microsoft’s first moves to integrate the virtual and physical worlds are modest compared to the expansive vision that Facebook laid out last week when it changed the company’s name to Meta to reflect its new focus on the metaverse.
However, Microsoft’s plan relies on the underlying technology, known as Mesh, it unveiled earlier this year to handle more complex virtual interactions on different types of devices, from computers to virtual reality headsets. Also, Microsoft executives said they saw the adoption of personal avatars as a first step in an advance that would make workers increasingly comfortable with new forms of virtual interaction that may now seem alien to them.
“With 250 million people around the world using Teams, rendering avatars will be the first true metaverse element to look real,” said Jared Spataro, President of Teams.
Teams has become the program through which many workers communicate with their colleagues and access Microsoft’s broadest suite of productivity tools. The company said it will integrate its other productivity software into its new virtual experiences — allowing workers to do things like watch PowerPoint presentations in the metaverse.
Spataro said much of the impetus for introducing new types of digital interaction came from the challenges companies face in hybrid working, with some employees returning to the office after the pandemic while others choose to work remotely.
Microsoft said its research showed that using personal avatars conveys a sense of “presence” that makes meetings more engaging, while freeing workers from having to constantly appear in front of the camera. The company said workers who were in a meeting where another person appeared as an avatar were more open to using the technology themselves.
Appearing as a character, Spataro said, “seems simple, it feels like it’s just one step, but that’s the kind of step I think people are willing to take.” “Maybe it’s kind of lighthearted at first.”
The company said it will use artificial intelligence to make an avatar’s lips appear to be speaking the spoken words, and to add facial expressions and hand gestures.
Its gradual approach to getting workers into the metaverse contrasts with Facebook’s earlier, more revolutionary vision for the future of office meetings. The social media company recently showcased the full virtual reality office experience, where people wear virtual reality goggles to sit in a virtual room alongside other worker avatars.
“It’s not so far fetched, let’s meet in a 3D space where we don’t know what to do,” Spataro said, comparing Microsoft’s use of avatars to go straight to full virtual reality meetings.