Moor Insights & Strategy has long considered Microsoft as one of the major platform players in the XR space with its HoloLens AR headset and Windows MR VR headsets, and Windows Mixed Reality platform. While many of Microsoft’s competitors are vertically integrated, like Facebook and Apple, Microsoft’s approach is far more ecosystem-focused, spreading the opportunity to others. To understand Microsoft’s Mesh announcement, you have to realize that Microsoft’s goal is to be the enabler of mixed reality applications for business and mixed reality for business and run that all through Azure cloud and Azure cloud services. That was clear when Microsoft announced the Hololens 2 at MWC 2019 in Barcelona, which I covered with mentor and Moor Insights & Strategy Principal Analyst Patrick Moorhead.
While Microsoft has been methodically plucking away at making the Hololens 2 more available to enterprises over the last two years, it has also worked on building and putting together the components that makeup Microsoft Mesh. Microsoft announced Mesh yesterday at the company’s Ignite conference, which is for its customers and developers of those customers.
Mesh is the company’s connective fabric for mixed reality collaboration, offering it as both an application and a service. Microsoft Mesh leverages Azure to allow people in different physical locations using different types of devices to join and collaborate in a shared holographic space. While Microsoft does make the Hololens 2 and has partnered with most major PC makers like HP to build Windows Mixed Reality VR headsets, Microsoft Mesh is designed to be device and operating system agnostic. And yes, while AltspaceVR is one of the first applications to support Mesh, there will be more cross-platform Microsoft productivity applications and hopefully 3rd party applications soon with Mesh in Preview.
Mesh Keynote Highlights
During Microsoft’s Ignite Keynote, the company demonstrated some of the power of Microsoft Mesh first by doing the entire keynote in AltspaceVR, allowing users on smartphones to standalone VR headsets to attend, with Hololens 2 and Windows Mixed Reality viewers having the premiere experiences.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella kicked off the keynote via 2D video. While Alex Kipman was not volumetrically captured for the presentation’s entirety, most of the keynote itself was spatially immersive. At one point, while Alex Kipman spoke about the oceans, the audience members, I included, got to engage with the presentation and pick the fish we wanted to see swim around the presentation. One of the key components in increasing users’ engagement in spatial computing is to allow users to participate and influence their own experience physically. After that, Alex Kipman spoke to Niantic (makers of Pokémon Go) CEO John Hanke, who attended as an AltspaceVR avatar, about the future of AR applications, and John showed off a proof-of-concept video of Pokémon Go for Hololens 2. This concept is far from a working application but rather an idea of some consumer applications for AR that could leverage Mesh outside of Microsoft’s current enterprise focus. This proof-of-concept peek into the consumer future got many people too excited about Microsoft Mesh and Hololens, and frankly, myself included.
Our founder Patrick Moorhead recommends that people not get too excited about a consumer play as he has seen prior MR apps demoed but not taken to market en-masse. Also, he believes Microsoft is an enterprise-company first. Microsoft may enable consumer MR companies but does not think that Microsoft will have a big consumer play for a while, and I agree with him.
Mesh supports OpenXR
What is interesting about Microsoft Mesh is that it helps to establish a base-level of features that people can grow accustomed to for mixed reality collaboration. Microsoft is one of the biggest supporters of the OpenXR standard, which means that the company wants to help the industry standardize around a certain level of agreed-upon ways of handling common XR functions and APIs and critical inputs like hand tracking and eye-tracking. Adopting OpenXR as Microsoft has helped solve the XR fragmentation problem and benefit Microsoft’s desire to support as many XR devices simultaneously.
Because OpenXR is growing in prevalence across the industry, there is an ever-increasing number of XR devices that Mesh should support from Microsoft’s competitors like Magic Leap, Facebook, HTC, and Valve. I believe that Microsoft Mesh would likely be a lot harder to accomplish without OpenXR, and I am glad to see that we are already able to see some of the benefits around open industry standards. Microsoft has taken a much more open-source approach to software development and ecosystems in the past few years, and it has been rewarded handsomely. I expect that this approach will also take hold in XR, and while we are still very much in the early days of XR, Microsoft is planting the essential seeds for the industry to sprout when the conditions are right.
Microsoft is not only establishing an open-source approach with Mesh but also with enterprise-grade security features, including secure sign-ins, session management, and privacy compliance. When you look at Microsoft’s competitors, some do not necessarily have the pedigree in security and privacy that Microsoft has and are much less likely to be considered seriously for XR applications involving business-sensitive data. Microsoft is uniquely positioned to be the foundational technology provider for XR collaboration with a platform like Mesh. I’m glad to see it is not sitting on the sidelines like some other players in the space.
Currently, Microsoft’s two Mesh apps are the Microsoft Mesh app for Hololens, which I have had limited experience with, and AltspaceVR, which is for Windows Mixed Reality headsets. AltspaceVR is an application that Microsoft saved from shutting down in 2017, and today looks like a very savvy decision. Multi-user collaboration will be one of the killer apps for XR, especially as the global pandemic and remote work continues to grow. It will take time for mixed reality collaboration to become as prevalent as video or voice calls, but Mesh brings us much closer to that reality. Microsoft expects to build Mesh into its collaboration apps like Microsoft Teams and Dynamics 365, but I believe there is room for apps like PowerPoint and even Excel. If integrating Mesh is easy enough, it should not be much of a problem for Microsoft to integrate it into its first-party apps where it makes the most sense. I also believe that Mesh also establishes the foundation for education applications to take advantage of what Microsoft has already in place with Mesh and encourage more engaging and immersive educational experiences for students attending from anywhere in the world.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy president and founder Patrick Moorhead contributed to this blog.