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A look to the future: Microsoft Mesh and beyond

In her latest article for MuseumNext, Microsoft Strategy Leader for Libraries and Museums, Catherine Devine, shares where next generation Extended Reality (XR) is heading and how the “new normal” for remote teams and even online learners may look as we progress through the next decade.

The speed at which people have become accustomed to and comfortable with collaborating online has been impressive over the past two years. What started with a tentative deployment of Teams by many museums and galleries has quickly become a daily function for institutions and organisations around the globe.

I myself have changed my working practices over this unprecedented 18 month period. Despite being a Microsoft employee already familiar with using Teams on a regular basis, I still spent around 200 days of my year travelling around the world for face-to-face meetings.

However, the landscape has undoubtedly shifted. As the entire museum community has transitioned online and pivoted to a virtual meeting format, I am certain that my travel schedule will look very different in years to come. Of course, this is beneficial for many reasons: including environmental, financial, efficiency and personal perspectives.

I should be completely honest and admit that I still love nothing more than face-to-face catchups. There is nothing quite like sitting down in a room with colleagues and associates in the museum community to really build relationships, learn and collaborate. And while I still hope to preserve at least some in-person meetings in the years to come, there is no doubt that the days of travelling for an appointment that I can easily dial into from anywhere are gone.

Yet this leaves one important question that my innovative colleagues here at Microsoft are constantly wrestling with: how do we improve the user experience of virtual meets so that they deliver the same quality as what the tech kids call “the meatspace”.

As good as Teams and other video conferencing tools are today, work still needs to be done to reduce the disconnect that occurs when people interact through a computer screen. And what I can say with certainty is that the next few years will see a marked improvement in the quality of that experience.

Reflecting on the future, 5 years on

Five years ago I wrote my very first article on LinkedIn. I thought I’d be bold with this inaugural piece and lay out some of my predictions for the future of XR. I wrote at the time, “It’s not about where it [technology] is today that’s exciting, it’s about where it will be in 5 years.” And so here we are!

As my 2016 self stated, the issue with VR when it first landed was that its applications were limited by both the cost, the quality and the isolation of the experience. Today, I think we have reached that point where the potential of social XR – and particularly AR delivered through our own holo-lens glasses via Microsoft Mesh – makes the experience so much more connected between users.

While it’s important to be candid and say that neither Microsoft nor any other tech business has perfected the technology quite yet, we do know that we are making virtual experiences more immersive, shared, multi-sensory and three dimensional all the time. That’s particularly important when we’re discussing the technology in relation to collaboration, conferencing and replacing face-to-face interaction.

The difference in 2021 is that much of the technological innovation work has been done and now the environment – i.e. the growth in remote working culture – is there to drive adoption. At Microsoft, we are working hard to get those virtual collaborations to where they need to be.

Of course, improving collaboration for museum staff also has important carry over into the online learning space. As I recently covered in my last MuseumNext article, museums like the V&A have enjoyed incredible success in delivering their courses online. And I expect that, in the next few years, we shall see much more of this develop as tools like holo-lens make learning from home (or anywhere for that matter) feel just as immersive, integrated and intimate as a lecture theatre or classroom – perhaps more so in many instances.

To see where this is heading, museums would do well to look towards the healthcare sector where medical institutions are already partnering with Microsoft to utilise XR within surgical training.

Seeing the wood for the holo-trees

Anyone who’s familiar with XR innovations will know that the potential of the technology has never been in question but the application has long escaped the mainstream. However, virtual collaboration is now here to stay. The appetite for improving this experience is very real. Nowhere is there greater clamour to optimise collaboration than in creative industries where the need for genuine human interaction to catalyse invention is most evident.

Through Microsoft Mesh we are already beginning to show how holoportation, holographic sharing and visualisation can all begin to meaningfully put groups in the same space, even when they aren’t in the same room.

I know it’s hard for people to understand how a technological advance will be of benefit until they see it. But I hope that the pandemic has given professionals in the museum sector a little more reason to feel enthusiastic about the potential benefits of tech innovations. Not only that but I hope it has given them the confidence to be a little less risk averse when it comes to trialling new tools and perhaps a bit more forward-thinking in their approach.

Holo-lens technology has already progressed at a pace and I think we will see Augmented Reality become mainstream much more quickly in the current climate. To me, it seems only a matter of time until we move our progress in online activity away from screens and towards wearables.

If one were looking for a yardstick by which to gauge the shift in acceptance of extended reality and the growing quality of immersive experiences, I would say that we could easily point to the recently announced ABBA Voyage tour.

This hybrid of live band, motion capture technology and CGI effects played out to an attending audience has garnered significant attention and promptly sold out when it was announced in September. While a pop residency in London may be a far cry from the weekly team catch-up, it is hard to deny that the integration of mixed reality experiences into the everyday is advancing all the time.

To me, this is a clear indication of where the technology is going. While museums won’t be looking to allocate 850 staff and many millions of pounds towards their own virtual experiences any time soon – particularly when it comes to colleague collaboration – it does excite me when we get a glimpse of what is coming down the track.

Just as the cost of microwaves, flat-screen TVs and personal computers came down dramatically over time, so the tools and technologies required to facilitate virtual meetings will become accessible to organisations of all sizes and sectors in the coming years.

Just as I felt excitement in 2016 as I peered five years into the future; so, today I look towards 2026 with the same sense of anticipation. I’m eager to see how far the needle will move in the next half decade.

The only question is: will museums be early adopters or last in the door?

Connect with Catherine Devine on LinkedIn here.

About the author – Catherine Devine

Catherine Devine is the recently appointed global Business Strategy Leader-Libraries and Museums at Microsoft. She was formerly Chief Digital Officer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization in the world to achieve more.

With Microsoft’s focus on understanding and solving the specific needs of Museums,  Catherine is leading this effort at Microsoft.

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