Following close at the heels of Facebook’s metaverse-themed rebrand, Microsoft has announced its own “metaverse” ambitions will first take the form of new Teams avatars: Legless, soul-less avatars that float around a virtual conference room and write on virtual whiteboards.
Like Meta, Microsoft’s initial entry into the metaverse discourse tackles virtual productivity. Mesh for Teams — that’s what Microsoft is calling it — dares to ask a bold question: Can we add a slew of distracting virtual features and still expect employees to pay attention to the meeting at hand?
Mesh for Teams is meant to be a collaborative virtual environment in which groups can meet to get things done. In practical terms, that integration will come in the form of personalized, 3D avatars that can be controlled via a VR headset or a regular old laptop.
Those avatars can take your place in a video chat window, and, eventually, they’ll be able to meet up with each other in company-made virtual environments. They’ll be able to share PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets in real-time.
Calling these avatars part of a “metaverse” is certainly a stretch; marketing them as a step toward more productive remote work is even more so.
Not exactly a metaverse — Like Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has a very amorphous conception of what, exactly, the “metaverse” is. In an interview with Bloomberg, Nadella describes avatar-laden virtual meetings and VR visits to U.K. COVID-19 wards under the same “metaverse” umbrella, but their relationship — other than both being virtual — is never really explained.
It’s pretty obvious from Nadella’s statements that Microsoft is still figuring out what, exactly, the metaverse means to its business. Our first introduction to Microsoft’s metaverse is a lineup of virtual avatars — a concept not at all novel, really, except this time they’re representing us in video calls. Sorry, Nadella, but avatars alone do not make a metaverse.
Is this supposed to be… helpful? — Let’s put terminology aside for a moment. Metaverse this, metaverse that — what we’re really talking about here is Mesh for Teams, the only actual product Microsoft has announced this week.
In his interview with Bloomberg, Nadella says Microsoft’s goal with this project is to make remote collaboration more engaging. There is some disconnect between this idea and the concept of avatar stand-ins at team meetings. Maybe this is just me, but speaking to an animated figure about a rush project feels less personal than a plain-old video chat with an actual human face.
The more metaverse-leaning features Microsoft is currently testing, like full virtual office environments, also feel antithetical to corporate productivity. Inside a virtual office, you’ll be able to show off a PowerPoint presentation to your coworkers, for example. That’s something you can already do very efficiently by sharing your screen on a video call. How do the extra steps here — getting everyone into the virtual office, setting up the presentation — make that process any more efficient?
Meta and Microsoft’s visions of the metaverse-driven future share one big characteristic: They don’t exist yet. These abstract presentations raise more questions than they answer. They aim to get us excited about the mere possibility of this virtual togetherness. Introducing that concept with glorified Memojis isn’t really doing the trick.