Microsoft Teams takes the metaverse corporate

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Microsoft takes on Facebook by launching metaverse on Teams © Financial Times

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Pick your avatar
If you had hoped to avoid the metaverse, too bad. Microsoft is now bringing it to your office (or should that be the virtual office). 

The US software giant announced that the 250m users of Microsoft Teams will next year have the opportunity to appear as avatars — or animated cartoons — in video meetings.

Artificial intelligence will be used to make an avatar’s lips appear to mouth the words you’re speaking, and to add facial expressions and hand gestures (although bear in mind AI’s not got a great record at reading facial expressions . . .). 

A light-hearted gimmick or will this really improve hybrid working? The tech company reckons remote workers who don’t want to be on camera in every meeting will welcome it. Those working from home will also be able to use their avatars to visit virtual work spaces, which would eventually include replicas of their employers’ offices.

Here’s what you could look like — anyone else getting Sims vibes?

Microsoft’s first moves to create a metaverse are modest compared to what Facebook laid out last week (you won’t need a virtual reality headset for work just yet). However, this is another sign that some of the world’s biggest tech companies see blending the virtual and physical worlds as one of the most important new trends in computing.

They’re not the first either. Wired’s looked at how companies have been testing avatar-based platforms for remote and hybrid working since Covid-19 lockdowns began with mixed results, and metaverses have been a feature in the gaming world for over a decade (from Second Life to Fortnite). Fun fact: video game avatars were first pioneered by Nasa employees in the 1970s.

As the metaverse goes corporate, one can only wonder what Slack or Zoom’s would look like. And will Satya Nadella look next to LinkedIn as a testing ground for the potential scope of Microsoft’s metaverse? Read this before you scoff.

The Internet of (Five) Things

1. TikTok owner ByteDance restructures after tough year
The internet company will be split into six business units, including content creation, education and gaming. Why now? This is the first restructuring since its founder Zhang Yiming stepped back in May. It comes as the Chinese government continues its crack down on online education and gaming, while ByteDance is still pushing to list next year.

2. Wait, Nicaragua’s been running a troll farm FOR HOW LONG?
Meta has accused the Nicaraguan government of running a troll farm with hundreds of fake accounts as part of a sprawling disinformation campaign to boost support for the government and disparage critics, ahead of this weekend’s election. The company says this has been going for three years — and just in October, they took down 937 Facebook accounts, 140 pages, 24 groups, and 363 Instagram accounts.

3. Squid Game’s success poses a dilemma for Korea’s tech industry
The Netflix show has captivated global audiences, but can South Korea’s entertainment companies move from producing content that performs well on foreign platforms such as Netflix or Apple Music to growing its own platforms so that they can emerge as global players in their own right? Elsewhere on the internet, a crypto token inspired by Squid Game (yes, this is a thing) has collapsed in an apparent scam.

4. Amazon-backed Rivian shoots for $53bn IPO valuation
At the top end of its range of $57-$62 a share, the electric vehicle maker would begin trading at a value higher than the likes of carmakers Kia and Nissan. The EV maker will hope to position itself as a Tesla-like manufacturer for heavy-duty commercial vehicles, so people won’t look at its balance sheet too closely. Rivian will make its debut on the Nasdaq potentially as early as next week.

5. Yahoo has pulled out of China.
It may have been a while since you last checked out what Yahoo is up to, but here’s the latest: they’ve pulled out of China, citing an increasingly challenging operating environment. The withdrawal was largely symbolic, as many of the company’s services were already blocked by China’s digital censorship, but it’s a reminder of the choices tech companies face in a country that offers a huge potential market but at a cost. Its departure comes one month after LinkedIn announced it would close its Chinese site.

Tech tools

Fellow bike nerds, if you’re looking for a next-level bike helmet, this is it. The EVO21 smart helmet (£99.99), the latest innovation from Shenzhen company Livall, comes with powerful, wide-angle LED front beams; brake lights on the back of the head; and even has side indicators controlled with a remote that clips on to your handlebars. Naturally, it can be paired with Strava and several other apps for tracking those personal bests. For the more wobbly riders among us, should you take a serious tumble, it will send an SOS alert and GPS signal of your whereabouts to emergency services. A clever spin on a crucial accessory. Read Jamie Waters’ full round-up of the best travel gadgets here.

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