Like many others this year, I was looking forward to Microsoft Ignite. It’s a chance to learn new things and see what new tech and services Microsoft have been working on the last 12 months . Obviously, things have been a little different over the last year or so but with more events delivered remotely, audiences across the world got a front row seat from the comfort of their homes, myself included.
I was particularly interested when I saw that this year they would not only be streaming the keynote online in video form, but also holding a one-of-a-kind keynote featuring Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Mixed Reality Technical Fellow Alex Kipman (he helped develop the Kinect for you Xbox gamers out there) within AltspaceVR. For those of you that don’t know AltspaceVR is a “destination for live virtual events” which was purchased by Microsoft back in the latter half of 2017.
I’ve had a keen interest in Virtual Reality (VR) for many years. The promise has been a long time coming from the clunky old arcade hardware which seemed to run at 2 frames per second, through to gaming devices like the Nintendo Virtual Boy with all of its red and black screen goodness. After this, VR all but died off until Oculus was born and started a Kickstarter campaign for their proposed PC based Rift headset in 2012. This proved very successful and helped to launch VR as we know it today which proved so successful that Facebook bought them in 2014 for $2 billion.
The term Mixed Reality encompasses not only Virtual Reality but also something known as Augmented Reality. Many of you may have already had a taste of this, using your mobile phone as a window to experience virtual elements in the real world.
Microsoft has a headset for this which many of you may have heard of, the Microsoft HoloLens, which is now in its second version. This allows virtual elements and avatars to be projected to the user’s headset, so they appear to be in the real world. For the Virtual Reality end of the spectrum Microsoft have partnered with various other companies such as Samsung, HP and others to produce Windows Mixed Reality headsets.
Microsoft has taken this a step further as it announced the launch of ‘Microsoft Mesh’ at Microsoft Ignite in March 2021. This is their new mixed reality platform which isn’t so much about the devices but more about what you can accomplish within the experiences that are opened up to you. Microsoft’s goal is to “enable presence and shared experiences from anywhere – on any device – through mixed reality applications”. They will be supporting not only their own HoloLens 2 device but also other VR headsets as well as smartphones (iOS and Android) and even a 2D experience that can be run on your standard PC.
Microsoft Mesh utilises the power of Azure with new services such as Remote Rendering and Spatial Anchors, which allow for virtual objects (holograms) to be anchored into physical space. This means virtual objects can be observed and interacted with by multiple users, all perceiving the object as if it was really there. It also has the ability to be tied into your organisations Azure Active Directory, allowing for things like holding virtual company events and meetings.
That brings me back to the AltspaceVR keynote experience. This started out as I expected in a shared VR environment with other attendees all watching Satya Nadella on a large virtual video screen. However, Microsoft were quick to up their game when they introduced Alex Kipman. Alex appeared to us as a “holoportation” which is a fancy word for projected version of himself (think Princess Leia’s message in R2D2 in Star Wars) on a virtual stage in front of us.
As he explained about Mesh the space was transformed into an underwater scene with whales, fish and even a giant squid swimming around him. The audience could even select fish to add to the scene. What was the point in that I hear you cry? Well Mesh is being used to aid deep sea exploration by OceanX and allow for bridge inspections from the safe environment of the inspectors home while a drone remotely captures the bridge in 3D to a ‘Burning man’ type experience from Lune Rouge, an initiative from Guy Laliberté who co-founded Cirque du Soleil.
And after all of this, there was an open shared conference hall experience where I was able to meet real people and discuss this incredible event we had just experienced. To say I was blown away was an understatement.
Microsoft are also promising integration with other Microsoft products down the line such as Teams and Dynamics 365. The opportunities and possibilities are endless, this is the next era in computing, it’s just a matter of how quickly it will be fully realised. I personally cannot wait to see where this takes us.
By Paul Bain, Cloud Systems Engineer at ANS