Microsoft has taken its first step towards bringing the metaverse to office life, in the latest sign that some of the biggest tech companies see the blending of the digital and physical worlds as one of the most important new trends in computing.
The US software giant said that in the first half of next year, users of its Teams collaboration software would be able to appear as avatars — or animated cartoons — in video meetings. Remote workers will also be able to use their avatars to visit virtual work spaces, which would eventually include replicas of their employers’ offices.
Microsoft’s first moves to blend the virtual and physical worlds are modest compared to the expansive vision that Facebook laid out last week when it changed its corporate name to Meta to reflect its new focus on the metaverse.
However, Microsoft’s plan is based on underlying technology, known as Mesh, that it unveiled earlier this year to handle far more complex virtual interactions on different types of hardware, from PCs to virtual reality headsets. Also, Microsoft executives said they saw the adoption of personal avatars as the first step in a progression that would see workers become increasingly comfortable with new forms of virtual interaction that might seem alien to them now.
“With 250m people around the world using Teams, the introduction of avatars will be the first real metaverse element to seem real,” said Jared Spataro, the head of Teams.
Teams has become the software through which many workers communicate with colleagues and access Microsoft’s wider set of productivity tools. The company said it would integrate its other productivity software into its new virtual experiences — allowing workers to do things like view PowerPoint presentations in the metaverse.
Spataro said much of the motivation for the introduction of new types of digital interaction came from the challenges companies are facing with hybrid working, as some employees return to the office after the pandemic while others choose to work remotely.
Microsoft said that its research showed that using personal avatars conveyed a sense of “presence” that made meetings more engaging, while freeing workers from having to constantly appear before a camera. Workers who had been in a meeting where someone else appeared as an avatar were also more open to using the technology themselves, the company said.
Appearing as an avatar “seems simple, it seems like just one step, but that’s the type of step I think people are ready to make”, Spataro said. “Maybe it’s even kind of light-hearted in the beginning.”
The company said it would use AI to make an avatar’s lips appear to mouth the words being spoken, and to add facial expressions and hand gestures.
The gradualist approach to introducing workers to the metaverse contrasts with the former Facebook’s more revolutionary vision for the future of office meetings. The social media company recently demonstrated a full virtual reality office experience, with people donning VR goggles to sit in a virtual room alongside avatars of other workers.
Contrasting Microsoft’s use of avatars to jumping straight to full virtual reality meetings, Spataro said: “It’s not as far out as like, let’s meet in a 3D space where we don’t know what to do.”