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Microsoft debuts AR/VR collaboration platform Mesh

Microsoft Mesh lets people meet with colleagues as avatars in a virtual meeting place. Participants can work together on 3D models and interact through gestures.

Microsoft has released a preview of its augmented reality and virtual reality collaboration platform Mesh, which lets people work together as avatars in 3D meeting rooms.

Mesh will run on Azure and serve as a platform for developers to build new augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) apps. Microsoft demonstrated Mesh at its annual Ignite conference this week, using avatars from VR social media app AltspaceVR. Microsoft acquired the startup in 2017.

Using Mesh, meeting participants can interact with holographic objects, design new things and make hand gestures at each other as cartoon versions of themselves. People can choose to see avatars floating in space outside the VR world.

Microsoft calls this combination of AR and VR mixed reality. A person can create a model, and another can add to it or resize it while both are in their separate real-life locations. People can leave a meeting and pick up where they left off later.

"[My colleague] was literally walking around in my office [while] we were messing around with virtual objects," said Todd Knapp, CEO of Microsoft IT consulting firm Envision. "We could both manipulate [them] together, even though he was not actually in the room."

Analysts said Mesh will appeal to manufacturing and service industries. For example, companies' field workers could use the technology to consult with engineers in a remote office.

Microsoft Mesh
Microsoft executive Alex Kipman, left, talks to Niantic CEO John Hanke in a Microsoft Mesh setting.

Mesh can also serve as a collaboration tool for designers working with 3D models. The virtual environment can recreate an in-person experience better than today's two-dimensional video conferencing, analysts said.

Mesh's interactive capabilities are available only on theMicrosoft AR headset HoloLens 2. The company plans to make it available on other VR headsets, PCs,smartphones and tablets in the future. Microsoft plans to integrate Mesh with Teams and Dynamics 365 as well.

"This is one of the first comprehensive commitments" from a major tech vendor, Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder said.

While customers can appear as only avatars, for now, Microsoft said it is working on technology that will make people appear as holograms of themselves. It did not say when or how this would be possible.

Microsoft Mesh
Users depicted as avatars work together in Microsoft Mesh on a hologram of a vehicle.

Mesh is not the first VR platform. Facebook has the Horizon product that people can use to meet or play games with friends from the social network. Facebook debuted Horizon last year.

Analysts said the cost of using Mesh could be prohibitive for some companies. While the app is free for now, mixed-reality headsets are not cheap. Microsoft's HoloLens 2 costs $3,500.

Nevertheless, Tom Brannen, an analyst at consulting firm OnConvergence, said the mixed-reality world that Mesh taps into is "potentially very transformational." It could one day become as essential as video conferencing is today.

"My feeling is, in 10 years, we won't have smartphones anymore because it will all just be in your [mixed-reality] glasses," Brannen said.

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