It seems like only yesterday I was blogging and live tweeting about the annual Microsoft Ignite conference, when it was actually September last year! The global pandemic has meant for some changes to how Microsoft showcase all their big announcements and instead of the usual Ignite: The Tour sessions we get in the following Spring (in the northern hemisphere) we were treated to another global 3-day virtual event. In this post, I will take you through the big announcements and updates as well as take a bit of a deeper look at the overall themes from Microsoft and what they tell us.
If you want to take a look for yourself, the good news is that all of the content is available on-demand from myignite.microsoft.com. There are well over 200 sessions, from the keynotes or general “what’s new” sessions, to deep-dives and proper technical training available. A little tip for finding the sessions you want: Once you’ve signed in to MyIgnite go to the session scheduler, use the filters to find the area you are interested in, then sort A-Z (by default they are sorted chronologically which makes it confusing to pick out the duplicate sessions!).
You may also want to check out the Book of News. This is a fairly concise online report that shows calls out all the newsworthy announcements. Each announcement has a small description, then links off to a more in-depth Tech Community blog or Microsoft Docs page. It took me about 90 mins to read through it all, including a bit of jumping out to find out more on the topics I was really interested in.
The opening keynote kicked off with Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, talking about the rapid rate of change that Microsoft has seen during the global pandemic. Organisations want to increase agility and increaser resilience to thrive in today’s economy. Satya described how Microsoft want to provide a Cloud built for the next decade that follows these drivers:
- Ubiquitous and decentralised computing
- Enabling IoT and edge devices
- Sovereign data and ambient intelligence
- Privacy based, machine learning, AI, predictive analytics
- Empowered creators and communities everywhere
- Democratise creation so everyone can create
- Operating systems re-imagined [Maybe hinting at a Windows 11, more likely the Windows 10X and Android versions]
- Economic opportunity for the global workforce
- Define productivity: inclusivity, learning, wellbeing, flexibility in where/when working
- Trust by design
- Microsoft won’t compete with your business [I can’t help think this was a dig at AWS]
- Ethical principles governing design
- Tech advancements to protect our environment
People need to adopt and create the tech they need and employee expectations are changing:
- Flexibility is key
- Microsoft Teams is the “organisation layer” on top of all your apps
- Build and retain social capital
- Let everyone participate
- Learning is part of working
Announcement: Microsoft Mesh
There has been an increase in mixed reality experiences in many organisations. 50% of Fortune 500 have HoloLens, and 50% of companies greater than 500 employees have piloted or are using Mixed Reality. Microsoft felt there was a gap between the people that got the high-fidelity HoloLens experience to those using a more basic headset, and especially those who only have a regular 2D device like a laptop or a smartphone. Microsoft Mesh (powered by Azure) is a new offering to help bridge that gap and bring people together. It enables people to interact holographically with each other and interact in a natural way. The video below gives you an idea of what it actually looks like.
Satya then handed the keynote over to Microsoft Fellow, Alex Kipman who was presenting from AltSpace VR. If, like me, you had no idea what AltSpace VR is, it is a virtual reality social platform, mostly used by gamers who have the VR kit on their games consoles or PCs. Microsoft acquired AltSpace in 2017 and absorbed it into its Mixed Reality division. During the live event you could actually go into AltSPace VR and visit the stage where Alex was presenting from. It looks a bit cheesey from the on-demand version but I can imagine if I had a headset on it would have been a lot more impressive!
With Mesh, Microsoft want to enable people to connect from anywhere, whether that is VR, AR, MR or 2D (aka normal reality!). By mixing these together you get a joint experience where people, whether avatars or holograms, can feel each other’s presence and work more naturally than a conventional remote meeting. Mesh will have integrations with Microsoft Teams, Dynamics 365 and Frontline Worker scenarios and can be accessed across any device.
Azure services like Azure Object Anchors (in Public Preview) and Remote Rendering (Generally Available) are used to create virtual representations of high definition models and then stream them to users. Currently this is a solitary experience but Mesh turns this into a collaborative one. They showed a few examples of how this would work. One was where some drones captured high-res images of a real bridge. This was then converted to a 3D model and streamed to users so they could all interact with it together regardless of their location. The Object Anchors allowed people to and comments or visualise data from specific points on the virtual bridge. The idea is that this make tasks quicker and safer to that give you a good return on investment. Another, slightly more accessible use case, was how Accenture used AltSpace VR to create a virtual “Nth floor” of their headquarters to be used as a social room for their staff and run their inductions from. They also showed how Niantic are partnering with Microsoft to create an even more immersive experience of their popular Pokémon Go game so you can have live augmented reality Pokémon battles in your local park.
The keynote wrapped up with a couple of talks from the OceanX team and James Cameron talking about the HoloLab on OceanXplorer research ship and how they have used HoloLens and Mesh for researchers to plan their work and then simulate tests or put a data map across the sea bed floor. After OceanX, Cirque du Soleil gave a preview of their Hanai World experience that is built on Microsoft Mesh. Alex joins the ranks of awkward dancing Microsoft execs to show how organisations will be able to build their own products similar to AltSpace VR.
Although Microsoft Mesh was “The Big Reveal” at this Ignite, I imagine it will still feel like the future to many people and organisation. My own team had a go at hosting an AltSpace VR games night from our PCs but the experience is not particularly intuitive. Despite the awkward controls and set up (which hopefully a bit of Microsoft Teams integration will help with) you did get a sense of togetherness that was different to a standard video call. There was no need for breakout rooms as you could just walk to a different area to have a side-chat. The key point that stood out for me was that it is only going to be a matter of time before these mixed reality experiences become more commonplace, whether for work or play, or a bit of both. Microsoft Azure provides a powerful, trusted platform to enable these kind of experiences that can bring people together and hopefully break down a few boundaries along the way.
Follow the link to read part 2 of my Ignite report all around The Hybrid Workplace.