Sometimes, there are valid reasons to turn your camera off during a Zoom or Teams meeting. For example, you might be in an environment that could prove distracting for other participants, you might have a small child who’s trying to climb on your chair or along your leg, or perhaps someone else who you live with needs to quietly access a book on the picture-perfect shelf that frames your desk.

Whatever the reason, for those who wish to ‘split the difference’ between appearing on camera and turning it off, Microsoft is adding animated 3D avatars to Microsoft Teams.

Microsoft Teams avatars

The avatar rollout is due to commence in May of this year. It’s part of a larger initiative known as “Mesh,” which was introduced amidst the swirl of metaverse hype in late 2021.

Mesh will ultimately include both virtual avatars and virtual work spaces. The goal is to enable people who are working remotely to feel like they’re in an office environment, even though they’re working from anywhere.

About the avatars

While a complete list of avatar features hasn’t yet surfaced, previous announcements about Mesh for Teams have shown avatars with customizable skin tones, body shapes, hair colors, hair styles and clothes.

Mesh for Teams concept art, image courtesy of Microsoft
Mesh for Teams concept art. Real participants and 3D avatar integration. Image courtesy of Microsoft.

Initial versions of the avatars are expected to waive and gesture when individuals are speaking (and only when individuals are speaking). Eventually, the avatars will become more sophisticated. Microsoft says that they will ultimately be able to mimic users’ actual facial expressions and gestures, based on webcam recordings.

Mesh avatars and spaces

“As a company whose focus is on productivity, on knowledge workers, it’s something that customers are really asking us for, and it’s coupled with the vision of mixed reality that we’ve been working on for 12 years. It’s all coming together,” stated Microsoft Technical Fellow Alex Kipman.

Kipman and his colleagues spent several years creating Mesh-enabled immersive spaces in collaboration with global consulting firm Accenture, which serves more than 600,000 clients worldwide.

Prior to the pandemic, Accenture had begun to develop a virtual campus where in-office and remote employees could gather for presentations, parties, coffee and other get-togethers. The employees began to call it the Nth floor – a magical and mythical place only accessible through virtual reality.

Along similar lines, Mesh for Teams offers a set of fun and engaging pre-built immersive spaces for professional gatherings.

The metaverse battle

Is the metaverse battle for digital avatars only just beginning? Some experts think so.

In October of 2021, Facebook rebranded into Meta, reflecting its ambition to conquer the metaverse. In 2022, the company’s virtual reality and augmented reality division generated nearly $2.2 billion in revenue, vaulting the company into the role of one of the biggest metaverse players globally.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that Google search traffic for the word ‘metaverse’ has declined by roughly 80% in the last year. And the hype-cycle has moved onto artificial intelligence. Will the metaverse bounce back?

According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index Annual Report, 50% of Gen Z and millennials will be doing their work in the metaverse in the next two years.

Another key point that people commonly overlook: The metaverse was always conceptualized as a 5-10 year endeavor, so this virtual space is still poised to grow significantly.

Further thoughts

The ability to use digital avatars in meetings may enable you and/or your colleagues to attend a greater number of meetings and to put your best foot forward each time, as some of the routine pre-meeting stress and ‘preparation’ work will melt away.

The avatars and the meeting spaces are part of a larger push on the part of tech vendors to make on-screen calls less draining, more engaging and more valuable for everyone involved.

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