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Enterprise AR a vital component of Microsoft's UC strategy

Enterprise AR is ready for prime time as organizations look for ways to make their remote meetings more productive by combining physical and virtual spaces.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of companies on notice that virtual and remote meetings are here to stay. With the help of unified communications, or UC, platforms, devices like mobile phones, desktops and laptops have become the dominant way employees now interact with clients or co-workers.

Enterprises are now assessing how they can add another dimension to virtual meetings by introducing a special and physical aspect to them.

Augmented reality (AR) has gained popularity in recent years thanks to popular gaming apps, like Pokemon Go, which enabled players to walk around parks and neighborhoods and interact with digital Pokemon characters through the cameras on their mobile devices.

With consumer acceptance of AR, enterprise AR has started to gain traction as the technology brings the digital world to the workplace by integrating digital information on a physical environment in real time. An even more immersive experience is possible when users don a headset, which enables them to move around and interact with different objects.

AR has seen adoption in verticals like manufacturing, for example, where headsets display information, such as an instruction manual, over a machine to aid in repairs. Now, conferencing and collaboration could be the next frontier for enterprise AR, and UC vendors are starting to explore AR offerings.

There is no doubt that meetings will look incredibly different in the near future.

Targeting an emerging market with new tools

Microsoft was among the first vendors to capitalize on the emerging market. The company released its HoloLens AR headset in 2016. Microsoft also introduced SharePoint spaces, which uses mixed reality -- a combination of augmented and virtual reality -- to enable users to interact with stored 2D and 3D objects, such as images, videos and text. Now, Microsoft is setting its sights on adding AR capabilities to its UC platforms.

During Microsoft's 2021 Ignite conference, the company introduced Mesh, a mixed-reality collaboration platform that uses the HoloLens 2 AR headset and Microsoft tools and services to create a shared experience that combines virtual and physical meeting spaces. The service will also support security, identity management, cloud storage and team collaboration apps, the company said.

Mesh will run on the Azure cloud and will enable individuals to virtually meet and share a holographic experience. The platform's aim is to provide a new way for meeting attendees to collaborate with digital objects. It's now in private preview, although Microsoft is allowing prospective customers to test the concept at a site that's powered by Mesh. Microsoft also plans to make Mesh available on other VR headsets, as well as PCs and mobile devices.

An image of a virtual meeting with Microsoft Mesh
With Microsoft Mesh, physical and virtual meeting participants can work together.

Evolution of meeting technology speeding up

There is no doubt that meetings will look incredibly different in the near future. They will be a mixed-reality experience, where attendees can move around and interact with each other, as well as 3D objects. Microsoft is not the only UC vendor to enter this space, as Cisco also offers support for VR Webex meetings. But, as other UC vendors begin to introduce their own offerings, Microsoft has the advantage of offering its own hardware with HoloLens.

Thanks to enterprise AR, organizers will have the option to, say, set their meetings in a virtual office that looks like the physical conference room, or they might plan a meeting where attendees find themselves in space or on a beach.

Whatever the setting, meetings will have a distinct feel to them and help get those working from home out of the house, albeit virtually.

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