Microsoft launches Mesh service for augmented reality collaboration

The Microsoft Mesh service provides a way for developers to add collaboration features such as video calling and hologram sharing to augmented reality applications.


Microsoft on Tuesday announced Mesh, a service for building apps for people to collaborate on in augmented reality.

Augmented reality (AR) shows computer-generated images superimposed over the real world, and nearly every major tech player is working on the technology as they strive to create the next computing platform to replace the smartphone. However, today’s AR headsets are often clunky and expensive (Microsoft’s HoloLens start at $ 3,500) and have so far been used primarily in industrial applications. Apple and Facebook are reportedly building their own AR headphones or glasses for release in the next few years, which could help validate the market for consumers and create something of an AR gold rush.

With Mesh, Microsoft wants to make sure that people who don’t have AR systems can participate in virtual meetings with those who do. The goal is to allow people to join 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 device that immerses people in a computer-generated world but blocks the physical environment, and is generally cheaper and more common than AR headsets. For example, HP sells a virtual reality device that runs on Windows, the Reverb G2, for $ 600.

To illustrate what Mesh can do, Microsoft created a sample application that runs on HoloLens.

After donning a HoloLens and opening the app, a person can design an avatar to represent themselves and join a meeting with other people, whose avatars appear as holograms. People’s head, body and hands can move thanks to the information captured by the headphones, and it is possible to talk to everyone, similar to a video call. Additionally, users can import, display, and manipulate custom and ready-made 3D holograms. Three-dimensional drawing tools are also available.

To demonstrate the technology more broadly, the company will introduce a version of AltspaceVR, a Mesh-enabled virtual reality meeting application. Customers can request to download the application. Microsoft acquired AltspaceVR in 2017 for undisclosed terms.

Over time, Microsoft plans to incorporate Mesh into its own applications, such as the Teams collaboration application that has become more widely used during the Covid pandemic as a way for co-workers to meet up without being in the office.

Mesh will be an Azure service and associated software development kit. Select customers can start testing the Mesh cloud service now 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. Azure revenue grew 50% year-over-year in the fourth quarter, while device revenue grew less than 4%.

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