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Microsoft is getting serious about this holographic meetings thing

Microsoft is getting serious about this holographic meetings thing
[Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]

In some ways, mixed-reality tech is a solution in search of a problem. It’s already being used by enterprises to guide headset-wearing employees through product assemblies or facilities troubleshoots. But Microsoft thinks it can find an even bigger use for the technology within corporate headquarters.

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The company has been working with the mixed-reality content company Spatial for a while now to help build workplace collaboration applications that happen in virtual space. Collaboration is central to Microsoft’s mission, and a key battleground in its competition with Google.

[Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]
Spatial played a part in the keynote demonstration of the future workplace at last year’s Build, but its presentation was far cooler this year. This was, in part, due to a deeper integration with Microsoft–as well as because Spatial has a much-improved Microsoft mixed-reality headset to work with: the HoloLens 2.

Here’s Spatial’s demo from Mobile World Congress with its customer, Mattel:

Developers attending the Build conference in Seattle Monday saw Spatial cofounder Anand Agarawala give a demo of a virtual meeting where participants–all wearing HoloLens–collaborated on the design of a robot hologram. Participants in other locations were represented by holographic avatars. They all could access data from Microsoft productivity apps; Since HoloLens now does decent hand tracking, the people could pick up a virtual document and toss it over to another participant in virtual space. They could even adjust the size and positioning of the robot with their hands. Participants could also write annotations around the design.

[Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]
It’s not just hands, either. Agarawala says Spatial uses the HoloLens 2’s eye tracking to accurately reflect user eye movements in their avatars in virtual space. The eye tracking is good enough to let avatars “convey subtle levels of user emotion,” Agarawala says.

This mixed-reality/collaboration endeavor is a big push for Microsoft. The company is adding a “Spatial Rooms” tab to its (Slack-like) Teams collaboration app. In Spatial Rooms, people can work on projects, customize the room, and come back to continue the work later. The meetings are also more inclusive now, because Spatial is enabling people to join a meeting via the web or smartphone.

The graphics in the Spatial demo at Build weren’t perfect, but they were a big improvement over what I saw at last year’s presentation. The holograms were still a little rough (Spatial represents people with holographic avatars, not the cartoon-like avatars used in Facebook Spaces). All the same, Spatial is pushing hard on the technology to get it to the point of being useful, if not totally lifelike.

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