Microsoft dips Teams in the metaverse vat with avatars ahead

Can't be bothered with cam? Replace yourself with a 3D diligent worker

Microsoft Teams users are getting more ways to express themselves to other participants on those increasingly frequent video calls.

Redmond is continuing to add features that enable users to change the look of their environments during video meetings, from blurring the background to putting shots of scenic vistas behind them.

Teams users now are getting more filters to add colorful animation to the screen or change the hue of the video. The visual effects filters, which were put into public preview in January, are being made generally available this month.

And for those who just want to turn off the camera and get off the screen during video conferences, Microsoft starting in May will be rolling out 3D avatars that will give other participants something else to look at instead.

Both the filters and the upcoming Avatars are part of a larger push by Microsoft, Zoom, and other video conferencing tech vendors to make the increasingly frequent on-screen calls and meetings less painful more engaging.

Video conferencing was already on the rise, but the COVID-19 pandemic almost overnight ramped demand and the resulting normalization of hybrid-work environments is keeping use of the technology relatively high.

Microsoft in January said Teams had reached 280 million monthly active users, up from 270 million a year before, showing "durable momentum since the pandemic," according to Frank X Shaw, chief communications officer. In February, the company pushed out Teams Premium, which comes loaded with a range of new features and a paid subscription plan.

"Many of us want to be more engaged with our colleagues and be fully present during meetings," Alexis Johnston, senior product marketing manager for Teams and Platform, writes in a blog post. "But due to demanding schedules we don't always have time to get ready and put our best foot forward."

Video filters allow users "to remove unwanted distractions and better express yourself by bringing your personality to each meeting."

Microsoft is initially offering the filters via an app called Custom Filters on the Teams Platform. The filters can be applied from the lobby before joining a meeting or while the meeting is in progress.

The apps are enabled by default, but for privacy and compliance reasons, tenant administrators will have control to enable or disable them but can't pre-install them because the apps require explicit user consent.

Initially the filters can only be applied from a desktop, according to Johnston.

Users will have to wait another two months before being able to get off video altogether. In a brief two-sentence update on the Microsoft 365 Roadmap, Microsoft said the avatars are coming in May, which will give those who just can't face the idea of being on camera for whatever reason a way to still participate.

"Avatars for Microsoft Teams gives you that much-needed camera break, while still allowing you to collaborate effectively. You can add a new layer of choice to your meetings and represent yourself the way you want with customizable avatars and reactions," the company writes.

Microsoft introduced the idea of avatars and Teams at the Ignite event in 2021 as part of its larger Mesh initiative to get a foothold in the emerging metaverse discussion. It was described at the show as a way to introduced mixed reality into the Teams world, either via the HoloLens headset or via Mesh-enabled apps on smartphones, tablets, or PCs.

The company also pitched the idea of creating virtual spaces for Teams, where full-bodied avatars could meet and interact. If that's your thing, we're sure you're very excited.

It was supposed to roll out in the first half of 2022, but is now coming a year later. ®

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