Microsoft unveils Mesh, and with James Cameron, dives into mixed reality

James Cameron holoport with Microsoft's Alex Kippman
James Cameron “holoports” to join Microsoft’s Alex Kipman on stage at Microsoft Ignite 2021. Microsoft

Events have been going virtual for a full year now, with the pandemic preventing physical meetings and forcing companies to innovate. But no one’s taken it quite as far as Microsoft Ignite — which just introduced us to an avatar of the guy who made Avatar.

Today at the developer conference, James Cameron — yep, that Titanic dude —  and Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté joined Microsoft for a fully virtual tech conference featuring “holoports” of the two, in which 3D capture technology is used to beam a lifelike image of a person into a virtual environment. Sure, we’ve seen it on stage during concerts, where great artists and actors living and dead have made virtual appearances. But never as an integral part of a conference.

“This has been the dream for mixed reality, the idea from the very beginning,” said Microsoft Technical Fellow Alex Kipman, one of the key folks behind Microsoft’s Hololens. “You can actually feel like you’re in the same place with someone sharing content, or you can teleport from different mixed-reality devices and be present with people even when you’re not physically together.”

Laliberté has been toying with virtual reality for years, he said, but nothing quite met his needs until Microsoft Mesh, a cross-technology platform also unveiled today at the show. Mesh lets app developers build persistent virtual environments for collaboration, communication, and more. Mesh pushes the boardroom scene even further, allowing people from around the globe to share holograms. Yes, you can toss a virtual key to someone else. It sounds silly, but it opens up vast new worlds, thanks to computation so complex it’s hard to fathom.

“It’s like the metaverse,” Greg Sullivan, director of mixed reality at Microsoft, told Digital Trends. “When someone who’s not in the room with you hands you a hologram, it’s a pretty powerful experience.”

Collaboration in Microsoft Mesh
An image from Microsoft illustrates the potential power of holograms and virtual collaboration in Microsoft Mesh.

With the help of Mesh, Laliberté plans to create Hanai World, a social mixed-reality platform that he’s thought about for years and would connect live and digital entertainment experiences into single events. For his part, Cameron plans to also create shared experiences across the virtual and physical worlds.

Microsoft is thinking of Mesh as a platform, and says it will release SDKs to allow any developer to add this capability to their apps — hence the announcement at the Ignite developer conference. The initial demo apes a design review on purpose — it’s a natural opportunity for this type of collaboration, Sullivan said, and any time you can avoid flying someone to a factory to inspect a prototype product, a company will be saving money. Other potential applications include remote support and training, manufacturing, and more.

Architects and engineers could physically walk through a holographic model of a factory floor under construction, seeing how all the pieces of equipment fit together in three dimensions, potentially avoiding costly mistakes. Engineering or medical students learning about electric car engines or human anatomy could gather as avatars around a holographic model and remove parts of the engine or peel back muscles to see what’s underneath.

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