Mar 02 2021

Microsoft Ignite 2021: The Meeting of the Future Is Arriving Today

New features in Teams and 365, smart hardware for next-generation conference rooms and the mixed reality platform Mesh are changing collaboration fundamentally.

Will the world of work go back to the way it was in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered physical businesses and sent millions to work from home? Microsoft doesn’t think so, and it’s working hard to be the technology provider of choice for organizations striving to deliver next-generation workspace and meeting experiences to their employees and partners — experiences that go well beyond the standard video meeting workers have become used to.

The meeting of the future will be “fluid, dynamic and cloud-powered,” says Jared Spataro, a vice president in charge of the Microsoft 365 collaboration platform, speaking at Microsoft Ignite, the company’s annual conference for customers, partners and analysts, happening virtually March 2-4. “We think of 2020 as the year work moved home, but in reality, it’s the year work moved to the cloud.”

    Citing Microsoft research findings, Spataro noted that 80 percent of managers expect more flexible work from home policies after workplaces reopen, and that more than 70 percent of workers expect to take advantage of that. In 2020 alone, Microsoft Teams usage jumped to 115 million daily active users, and Microsoft 365 users generated 30 billion collaboration minutes in a single day.

    Microsoft also rolled out more than 100 new Teams features in 2020, including:

    • Large Gallery, which lets video meeting participants see up to 49 video feeds at once.
    • Together Mode, which allows users to place meeting participants’ faces in a virtual shared space, such as an auditorium.
    • Dynamic View, which lets users control who shows up alongside content as it’s shared.
    • Virtual Breakout Rooms, allowing for the easy creation of subgroups.
    • Connect, which enables the creation of Teams channels for people outside an organization.
    • Webinar enablement within Teams, which will handle registration and scheduling and allow users to broadcast to as many as 20,000 attendees.

    Microsoft Builds Solutions for Hybrid Meetings

    Those updates are just the beginning, and they are designed primarily for meetings where all participants are remote. An immediate challenge for collaboration solution providers is how to maximize the hybrid meeting experience, in which some participants are physically in a conference room while others are calling in.

    “Meeting rooms were originally created to enable in-room collaboration, so joining a meeting remotely can make you feel like you’re on the outside looking in,” Spataro said.

    So Microsoft introduced Teams Rooms, an array of physical hardware — from Microsoft partners such as Lenovo, Crestron, Poly, Logitech and others, plus some of its own gear — that works with its Teams software features to create state-of-the-art meeting experiences for those in the room and those outside of it.

    For example, those participating in a room can choose to see remote users together on a screen in any number of layouts. Smart cameras and microphones that frame and identify speakers, provide a live written transcript of what the speaker is saying, and even follow the speaker around the room, keeping him or her centered in the frame, will help remote attendees feel part of the action.

    Moreover, with the Surface Hub 2S, Microsoft’s top-of-the-line digital whiteboard, in-room attendees can write or draw directly on the screen or via their computer or tablet, as can remote participants.

    “We’ve seen exponential growth in things like real-time document sharing, but we know we still have to crack the code on virtual creativity,” Spataro said. “When it comes to things like brainstorming, people are still missing being in a room together.”

    MORE FROM BIZTECH: Learn how dynamic technology enables a more flexible workforce.

    Microsoft Mesh Is Its New Mixed Reality Platform

    At the same time, the company wowed Ignite’s virtual participants with a detailed look at Microsoft Mesh, its new mixed reality platform that CEO Satya Nadella described as the business collaboration version of the Xbox Live gaming service.

    “Mesh allows you to interact holographically with others, with true presence, in a natural way,” he said. “For example, I can join a birthday celebration with my extended family in India, interacting as if we were physically together without any screens between us. Or I can meet my colleagues on the other side of the world, collaborating as if we were in the same room. It’s pretty mind-boggling to imagine, but this is the future we’re building.”

    It’s made possible with the Microsoft HoloLens, a wearable headset that projects holograms into real space. Alex Kipman, a Microsoft Technical Fellow and lead developer of the HoloLens, demonstrated how Mesh and HoloLens can be integrated into Teams to create a you-are-there experience.

    Wearing the HoloLens, Kipman interviewed people such as John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, creator of the mixed reality game Pokemon Go. Hanke was “holoported,” as Kipman put it, from a remote location and appeared on stage as a digital avator. Film director James Cameron was likewise beamed in from New Zealand to discuss how mixed reality has helped his deep-sea explorations and his filmmaking.

    Microsoft hopes software developers will use Mesh to build mixed reality applications for everything from holding meetings to visiting other countries or worlds.

    “It’s a great way to create and collaborate and co-create with other people. It’s constantly improved to the point where it’s an absolute to work in that space every day,” said Cameron, maker of Titanic and Avatar, among other popular movies. With mixed reality, he said, “I see us transcending our bodies, our borders and cultures, and that’s a great thing. We need that.”

    Getty Images/ metamorworks