Microsoft Mesh – a future of immersive collaboration

The first week of March gave us Microsoft Ignite, the online conference highlighting major developments by the company. The opening keynote by CEO, Satya Nadella, provided five predictions for the coming years, outlined below, that will shape how we work, collaborate and invent. He offered an optimistic view of the world coming together and sharing in economic success by being able to contribute without limitations. Technology as a force for good, not least saving the planet. Encouraging stuff.

Satya Nadella offers us hope

The highlight for me was the announcement of Microsoft Mesh which promises to bring ubiquity to immersive mixed reality experiences. Right now, mixed reality is eye-catching but niche. No doubt its time is coming and soon. But in the context of the customer experience, you must fix the foundations before toying with new tech. More of that later, but first, let’s take a look at Nadella’s five predictions. Then we’ll explore Microsoft Mesh.

  1. Ubiquitous and decentralized computing – delivering exponential growth in capacity and decentralized cloud and edge computing. From a CX perspective, this will yield real-time instead of near-real-time capabilities. Essential for dynamic orchestration of the customer experience.
  2. Sovereign data and ambient intelligence – providing greater governance of data, critical where customer data is concerned, and new federated machine learning, where outcomes are ‘learned’ not coded. The idea of ambient intelligence is that it is contextual depending on the user or observer’s situation. Augmenting human capabilities rather than replacing them.
  3. Empowered creators and communities everywhere – Nadella believes that there will be an explosion of innovation within the decade as the means to innovate are further democratized. Domain experts will use no-code development tools to spin up new capabilities and potentially enrich the customer experience. This is where Mesh and mixed reality will play an increasingly vital role.
  4. Economic opportunity for the global workforce – perhaps Nadella’s most optimistic prediction. There is no doubt the impact of the pandemic has accelerated remote working. The rise of the gig economy and collaboration by geographically dispersed individuals and ecosystems enabled by the first three predictions offers the promise of wider involvement and reward. A bit far-fetched perhaps, but several years ago, I imagined a world where challenges seek out individuals who can contribute to the solutions to overcome them. Whether or not employed by the organization trying to tackle the challenge. Perhaps, aided by ambient-AI, a sentient internet (the sentienet?). Before that brave new world emerges, massive connectivity improvements, especially when 5G takes off, allied to intuitive collaboration platforms and tools, promise to remove time and space barriers. Empowering people to do incredible things. Let’s hope so.
  5. Trust by design – echoes the recommendations outlined in Responsible AI – What is it, and why it’s important to CX?. In this case, Nadella spoke of zero-trust architectural principles behind AI developments, ensuring AI’s ethical use. This will be a recurring theme given the fears rational or apocryphal that surround AI.

Microsoft Mesh niche today, saving the planet tomorrow?

Rather than individual mixed reality experiences that have been around for a few years, Mesh provides a platform to enable presence and shared experiences from pretty much anywhere. To get a more visceral sense of what this means, take a look at the impressive YouTube video: Microsoft’s Alex Kipman unveils Microsoft Mesh. It’s early days, but you can see the potential. The most obvious use-cases are 3D collaboration on product development by teams of engineers dotted around the world. Even if they inhabit greatly different time-zones, they can pick up where their fellow engineers left off to continue development. Other examples revealed at Microsoft Ignite included a consultant based in the US providing instructions to surgeons in a remote town in Africa on complex surgical procedures. While the entertainment and gaming industries are high potential beneficiaries, (Cirque du Soleil and Pokémon GO both featured at Ignite), I think that a few years down the line, Mesh and Teams will be indistinguishable. No need to fly halfway around the world to an important board meeting or any of the innumerable trade exhibitions and conferences. Simply holoport and have a photorealistic mixed reality meeting, or if that proves an expensive option, turn up as an avatar.

Today VR headsets like HoloLens 2 are expensive pieces of equipment at around $3,000 a pop. A drop in the ocean perhaps for engineers working on multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects, or inspecting thousands of remote chunks of capital equipment buried deep under the sea. But, given the explosion in innovation and the growing clamor for action on climate change, there will come a point over the next few years where business travel becomes harder to justify. The economics and immediacy of immersive holographic meetings allied to a rising planet-saving consciousness will make them the preferred option. From niche application to planet-saving, all within the space of a few years. That’s quite a promise.

Exciting times ahead but first fix the foundations

We can also expect that eCommerce sites will offer mixed reality try-before-you-buy experiences. The fashion industry is an obvious candidate. A few years ago my wife gave me a 3D printed model of herself, which was amazingly realistic. I’ve taken the 12-inch model on tour with me to Australia, the US, and Singapore. Sadly she was unable to join me as the trips were for business. But what it does show is that 3D models can be easily developed in suitably equipped photo-booths. I’m sure there is a market for getting your 3D coordinates, adding them to your smartphone or Apple Wallet, and then exchanging the data with your favorite online clothing retailer, so that you can try on different items in a variety of virtual settings via your 3D avatar. No doubt guided by an AI-driven virtual concierge. But while customer experiences may be augmented and become more immersive, far too many businesses still offer a broken customer experience. So while these developments offer excitement and hope, my advice is first, lay down the foundations for a positive and consistent customer experience. Master the three critical value disciplines so that when the time is right for your business, you can easily add these emerging immersive capabilities and massively enhance the customer experience.