Microsoft on Tuesday announced Mesh, a service to build apps for people to collaborate in augmented reality.
Augmented reality (AR) displays computer-generated images superimposed on the real world, and nearly all major players in the technology sector are working on the technology in their efforts to create the next computing platform that will replace the smartphone. AR headsets today, however, are often clunky and expensive — Microsoft’s HoloLens starts at $3,500 — and so far they have been used primarily in industrial applications.
Apple and Facebook are reportedly building their own AR headsets or glasses that will come to market in the next few years, which could help validate the market for consumers and create a kind of AR gold rush.
With Mesh, Microsoft wants to ensure that people who don’t have AR systems can participate in virtual meetings with people who do. The goal is to allow people to participate in Mesh-enabled meetings on any device, such as a PC, tablet or smartphone. It will also work with virtual reality (VR) headsets – a slightly different class of devices that immerse people in a computer-generated world but block out the physical environment, and which are generally cheaper and more common than AR headsets. For example, HP sells a VR device that works with Windows, the Reverb G2, for $600.
To illustrate what Mesh can do, Microsoft built a sample app that runs on the HoloLens.
After setting up a HoloLens and opening the app, a person can design an avatar to introduce themselves and participate in a meeting with other people, whose avatars appear as holograms. People’s heads, bodies and hands can all move thanks to the information captured by the headsets, and it is possible to talk to anyone, similar to a video call. In addition, users can import, display and manipulate ready-made and custom three-dimensional holograms. Three-dimensional drawing tools are also available.
To demonstrate the technology more broadly, the company is releasing a Mesh-enabled version of AltspaceVR, a VR meeting app. Customers can request to download the app. Microsoft acquired AltspaceVR in 2017 for undisclosed terms.
Over time, Microsoft plans to integrate Mesh into its own applications, such as the Teams collaboration app used more widely during the Covid pandemic as a way for colleagues to meet without being in the office.
Mesh will be an Azure service and associated software development kit. Selected customers can now start testing the Mesh cloud service in preview before it becomes more widely available. Microsoft has not disclosed how much it will cost to use the service. Azure is a public cloud service for hosting applications.
Microsoft derives less than 5% of its revenue from devices, while one analyst estimates that Azure accounts for 17% of revenue. In the fourth quarter, Azure revenue grew 50% year-over-year, while device revenue grew less than 4%.
Microsoft shows its vision of future meetings, with your colleagues as holograms floating through space