The 2021 fully virtual Microsoft Ignite event began Tuesday and will run through Thursday, November 4. If you’re an IT professional with a Microsoft workload, there’s a lot to handle this time around. The big news is that Microsoft is jumping on the metaverse bandwagon.
Jared Spataro, vice president of Microsoft Corporate, summed this up as computing embedded in the real world. “That’s Mesh, the metaverse platform,” he said during his Ignite keynote session. “We’re taking that experience with us and building Mesh directly into Teams… extending productivity beyond what was previously possible.”
There were plenty of demos to show what Spataro described. Still, the one-liner is that the Microsoft Cloud, which includes all the services offered by Azure and Microsoft 365, is now going to focus heavily on redefining what collaboration means if you’re a hybrid employee or a full-time remote worker. And it’s going to do it with a pretty cool combination of artificial intelligence (AI), a souped-up Microsoft Teams experience, and Windows 11, along with some optional virtual desktop capabilities in Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD) and Windows 365 Cloud PC.
Teams and Microsoft Mesh
One of the slickest metaverse demonstrations was Microsoft Mesh for Teams. It looked a little crazy at first, as it just showed a typical Teams video conferencing session, except that several attendees were avatars instead of live camera images. However, the avatars still worked with cameras and mimicked the participant’s lip and arm movements. That might come in handy if you still have a headboard for an early meeting, but otherwise it didn’t look very revolutionary.
The real spice came when the demo shifted to an immersive virtual workspace. In this environment, you can map an entire 3D office, as demonstrated by an early adopter, Accenture, who showed a large onboarding environment it had built with Mesh. It calls this The Nth Floor. Using the Oculus or HoloLens VR headsets, all Accenture employees and new hires can meet on the Nth Floor as avatars, move around and interact with each other. From there, they can also access their data. It’s the data part that turns out to be one of the most impressive metaverse announcements.
Up front, all the data displayed in your immersive virtual environment is live. So you can have meetings with all avatars in your virtual space and the data on your virtual whiteboard can access all the documents you want to edit together. You can save any doodles you create on the whiteboard as live data, which you can later share via the Office document engine or as a record in your new Teams space.
Custom smarts with Azure OpenAI
Even slicker, according to Ignite spokespersons, Microsoft’s AI engine is now capable of higher accuracy for live speech transcription and translation. That means you can create a virtual office space where employees of different nationalities can meet and communicate, as the AI engine translates in real time what one says to another and the translation in the environment or, presumably, through sound.
This AI engine will be accessible to developers using the Azure OpenAI. This service allows your developers to customize Microsoft’s AI to help with specific workloads, such as vertical models or queries in Power BI, for example.
Within the metaverse, Microsoft’s AI will intelligently predict the data you need when you need it, serve it up, and then make sure it’s imported in whatever format you’re in at the time. It calls this a “digital fabric,” meaning it’s going to link your data to a secure combination of collaboration and communication tools.
Let’s say you’re writing an email about quarterly sales. Outlook realizes what you’re writing about, presents you with a list of potentially relevant files, and once you pick one, puts the content in your email and automatically formats it for that experience. It will do the same on your virtual reality whiteboard, your Excel spreadsheet, or whatever other Microsoft 365 tool you use. And you can do it for different organizations too, not just for other teams in your company, but also for external organizations, such as partners or critical customers (more on that below).
Loop, Teams and Viva
The beating heart of all this innovation will be a Teams experience powered by new and optional technologies. At first glance, it all feels like a more modern implementation of Microsoft SharePoint incorporated into the Teams UI. But many additional features have been added, most notably cross-device access and the multi-organization collaboration mentioned above. And that description is not far off.
Microsoft says these new capabilities are primarily based on two new platforms: Microsoft Loop and Microsoft Viva. Loop appears to represent all the features the company promised as part of its Fluid Framework in 2019, including documents that automatically enable multi-person collaboration, an intelligent and app-independent document model, and a host of intelligent agents now powered by Azure OpenAI. . But instead of leaving this under the Fluid banner, Microsoft put it under Loop as Loop Components, Loop Pages, and Loop Workspaces. It also made those capabilities accessible to the entire Microsoft 365 app portfolio, especially the Teams user interface.
The more advanced features of the Metaverse vision won’t be available until the first quarter of 2022, but you can still get a lot of the new data fabric now in Microsoft Viva, which was released just in time for Ignite. You won’t see Viva up front, but for a promotional price of $9 per user per month (available until August 2022), your IT staff can configure it in a new management experience added to Microsoft 365.
With Viva, you can now build an early metaverse data fabric using four components: Viva Connections, Viva Insights, Viva Topics, and Viva Learning. And since Microsoft recently acquired Ally.io, Viva will also expand into employee performance management later this year using the OKR model.
Viva enables a long list of other features when using Microsoft 365, such as new manager insights into hybrid employee wellbeing and meeting efficiency using Viva Insights, but surfaced through an app for Microsoft Teams. You also get a new organization and sharing model with Viva Topics, and you can access it through Bing, Outlook, and Yammer integrations. Viva Learning is a complete Learning Management System (LMS) displayed on several Microsoft front-end touchpoints, including Teams, Office, and even LinkedIn’s Glint.
There’s a lot to get your head around here, and an excellent place to start is today’s Viva sessions on Ignite and the Microsoft 365 blog.
Microsoft promises security without borders
Microsoft plans to use Azure Active Directory to maintain document-level identity management and security on the metaverse backend, including role-based access, DRM, and encryption. But it also says that this protection will be “borderless”. So as long as both organizations use Azure AD, their IT departments can join their domains. You’ll essentially be able to quickly pull customer or partner organizations into your secure AD environment, but without sacrificing security control over the things you need to protect.
Up front, users will know it as Microsoft Teams Connect. Once live, Teams Connect will allow users to share their Teams channels with external organizations and collaborate with them as they would with internal colleagues, but with full security.
This means you get SharePoint-like team sites for document storage, collaboration, and task management. But you can also combine that with the meeting and communication options of Teams. So information from a Teams site is automatically displayed in your team’s virtual meeting, and you can access both the meeting and the data from various devices, including mobile devices. Sure, you’ll get the best experience with a Microsoft Surface device, but the company says it supports a host of other platforms as well.
Add the virtual desktop
And while you don’t need an Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD) or Windows 365 Cloud PC to use the metaverse, you can access all of these capabilities with one of these desktop-as-a-service (DaaS) platforms. This represents the first tier of Microsoft’s hybrid work strategy, as both technologies are already available. The entirety of the metaverse won’t arrive until well into 2022 and probably later, as something so complex and far-reaching is bound to hit some last-minute snags. However, both AVD and Cloud PC represent attractive options for solving hybrid work headaches at the moment, even without the upcoming Metaverse.
In a QA session with PCMag.com, Wangui McKelvey, Microsoft GM of Apps & Endpoints, listed the differences between virtual desktop products. “Windows 365 Cloud PC is another, more simplified option for businesses looking to take advantage of virtual desktop technology,” she said. “AVD is for Azure and virtualization savvy IT professionals who need deep customization features. Windows 365 just lowers the barrier to entry. It’s easier to deploy, use, and even more affordable because it’s part of Microsoft 365.”
So Windows 365 provides easy and near-instantaneous deployment of desktop images that are completely managed by your IT department. And it’s suitable for anyone who uses everything from an iPhone to a desktop workstation. Patch management and security are included in the package and you can even upgrade from Windows 10 to Windows 11 on existing desktop instances by simply checking a box. And since it’s an option within Microsoft 365, you can buy Cloud PC with an Office 365 bundle, as well as Intune device management and more advanced back-end offerings, such as Dynamics 365 or Microsoft SharePoint Online.
To learn more about all these announcements, you’ll want to attend the rest of this week’s Ignite event (it’s free). No matter what day you attend, you’ll want to focus on sessions detailing Microsoft’s hybrid work and hyper-connected business strategies, as well as conversations about cybersecurity challenges. Specific sessions on Loop and Viva are also available.