Making a Mesh

Microsoft Mesh is exciting, but its launch left a lot to be desired

One of the headline-grabbing announcements from Microsoft’s Ignite 2021 event was the announcement of Mesh, a new extended reality (XR) platform built on the company’s Azure cloud service. The launch signals a more dedicated push from Microsoft to develop collaboration in XR, as the company positions itself as a leader in the next generation of computing, in which XR experiences begin to replace smartphones and PCs.

Essentially, Microsoft is aiming to support and widen the pool of developers for XR by providing a baseline platform and a set of toolkits with Mesh. To begin with, this will empower developers to create collaborative, multi-user experiences without needing to code these from scratch. In the long run, Mesh may well become an all-encompassing home for XR and Microsoft’s vehicle for future investments in this space.

The launch of Mesh included two ready-made applications: a HoloLens Mesh app, which lets multiple HoloLens users collaborate with each other at the same time, and the AltspaceVR app for virtual live events, which Microsoft acquired in 2017 and has now rebuilt on the Mesh platform.

These two apps serve to outline Microsoft’s bets on the future of remote collaboration, in which virtual presence and interactions will become more important and begin to replace 2D video calling systems. In this vision, avatars and holographic characters play a major role, with a heavy focus on allowing people to connect as if they were in the same physical location. The ultimate promise is that this enables more seamless and more powerful interaction between users for a range of applications.

This isn’t strictly a new concept; there are already plenty of offerings aimed at bringing people together in 3D worlds. But its significance lies in the clout that Microsoft brings, thanks to the extent of its reach in computing experiences. The company has been deeply involved in many aspects of the shift to remote working — most notably with Teams becoming a staple of remote collaboration for many businesses — and Mesh could hugely change the landscape for XR experiences.

On the topic of business, Microsoft demonstrated several Mesh-enabled apps for work, highlighting classic enterprise deployments like remote assistance and team collaboration based on 3D design. This will strike a chord with much of the audience, given the acceleration in roll-outs of augmented reality solutions throughout the Covid-19 pandemic as businesses rushed to find solutions that can ensure business continuity in challenging times.

Mesh itself holds a lot of potential, but I found the keynote presentation at Ignite 2021 to be a confusing attempt to convey the value of the platform. It wasn’t always clear what Mesh is and is not, and it felt like Microsoft missed an opportunity to communicate why this is a ground-breaking development.

Unpicking the role of Mesh from the rest of the session — which included some awkward segments such as a stilted presentation about Pokemon Go — wasn’t straightforward, as the narrative seemed to drift into a general discussion of XR, rather than why Mesh-enabled experiences will change the game. This clouded the message, distracting rather than educating the audience, and didn’t tell exactly why Microsoft is a leader in this space.

My frustration with the unveiling of Mesh also extended to my experience in trying to join a virtual reality broadcast of the event. Microsoft had made a point of promoting just how incredible the session would be for those joining through AltspaceVR, and I had charged up my VR headset ready to go for the big event. However, my joining experience was blighted by hitches like AltspaceVR refusing to accept my login details and the video failing to load once I’d finally joined.

Trying to diagnose and resolve this problem while switching between my headset and PC was a pain, and I eventually gave up and watched the AltspaceVR stream on my desktop. From what I saw on Twitter, lots of other people faced the same problems, which shows how much work is still to be done for XR events to be as slick and seamless as their 2D counterparts. If Mesh-enabled experiences have anything like the problems I encountered, people won’t entertain them for long.

It’s rare that I come away from a major XR announcement without a sense of real excitement, but for me, the keynote address at Ignite 2021 failed to spark. Taken on its own merits, Mesh looks set to be a valuable platform, and the XR industry will really benefit from having a player of Microsoft’s size and scale committed to developing the ecosystem. But in this instance, the launch presentation missed the mark, and left many wondering what exactly the major announcement was.

My attempt to listen to the announcement in virtual reality only heightened fears about the hurdles that the industry needs to overcome before 3D remote collaboration is a reality. Mesh is an exciting project and will play a big role in the future of XR, but its unveiling felt more like crossed wires.