Is the tedium of videoconferencing getting you down? Fret not. You’ll be pleased to know that, if you’re a Teams users, avatars are now generally available for all Microsoft 365 Business and Enterprise licenses starting this week in the Teams desktop app on Windows and Mac. Hurrah.
Microsoft notes that avatars for Microsoft Teams “offer an alternative to the current binary option of video or no video” and feature “customizable avatars and reactions,” giving users the option of a camera break “while encouraging engagement and fun.” I’m not sure I’d go that far. But hey, they make for a more entertaining work call than a blank screen — supposedly.
In related news, Microsoft today announced the launch of Mesh in private preview, its platform that lets developers build VR-focused experiences for the workplace. Teams users can join immersive spaces, also in private preview, which aim to “mimic many elements of in-person interactions,” like the ability to walk over to a group and catch up.
The Mesh rollout feels, in many ways, like the last vestiges of Microsoft’s attempt to make the “metaverse” — whatever that term implies, now — happen. Mesh was announced nearly two years ago, and Microsoft has made moves that signal its investment in VR and AR tech is winding down. In January, the company shuttered AltspaceVR, which was building social VR experiences, as a part of company-wide restructuring. And Microsoft reportedly canceled the successor to its HoloLens 2 headset due to “strategic uncertainty.”
Microsoft denies this, of course. A spokesperson said via email: “We continue to see strong interest and demand from customers for our immersive solutions. Our customers tell us that accommodating a global workforce that is more dispersed than ever post-pandemic can result in the loss of natural, meaningful connections in the workplace … [With Mesh,] organizations have the opportunity to rebuild lost social capital while also helping reduce the financial burden and environmental impact of travel and facilities.”
But it’s clear from the rest of the items out of Build today that Microsoft’s singularly focused on dominating the generative AI space. There’s certainly a more obvious return there than the metaverse, which has cost Meta, another tech giant intent on willing VR into widespread adoption, billions upon billions of dollars. (Tellingly, Meta, increasingly, is diverting its attention from VR tech in favor of AI, in part as a result of investor pressure.)
Time will tell whether it’s the right move. But it’d seem that Microsoft has no regrets about the pivot yet.