UPDATED! The Launch of Microsoft Mesh at the Microsoft Ignite Event: Lots of Sizzle, But Little Evidence of Steak

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On Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021, I put on my shiny new Valve Index VR headset and went to the Microsoft Ignite event, which I attended in a virtual auditorium on the social VR platform AltspaceVR (which, of course, is owned by Microsoft).

There was the usual enthusiastic corporate keynote by Microsoft Satya Nadella, with special guests such as film director James Cameron. Almost everybody was sporting a Microsoft HoloLens 2 mixed reality headset.

Here are a few pictures I took at the event:

The purpose of the event was to promote something called Microsoft Mesh. What is Microsoft Mesh? Good question. Engadget writer D. Hardawar attempts a concise explanation:

…Microsoft Mesh, the company’s ambitious new attempt at unifying holographic virtual collaboration across multiple devices, be they VR headsets, AR (like HoloLens), laptops or smartphones. Powered by Microsoft’s Azure cloud, Mesh isn’t just an app, it’s a platform that other developers can use to bring remote collaboration to their own software. If remote work is here to stay — and by most accounts, it is — Microsoft wants to be the company taking us beyond Zoom video chats, and towards holographic experiences that everyone can join.

“Not only are we going to be able to share holograms, but we’ll be able to do so in a way that gives us agency and presence,” Sullivan said during our virtual meeting. “We can create these experiences, where even though we’re physically separated, it feels like we’re in the same room, sharing in an experience and collaborating on a project.”

Here’s the requisite slick two-minute promotional video (played to the audience in AltspaceVR during the Microsoft Ignite event) which tries to impart what Microsoft Mesh is all about:

The Ignite event finale was a showstopper, promoting a still-in-development joint venture with Canada’s Cirque du Soleil called Hanai World, which featured not one, but FOUR people captured in volumetric video gathered around a magical campfire, 360-degree video of dancers and jugglers and other Cirque du Soleil performers, and AltspaceVR spectators (like me!) who were able to wander around and experience the space in 3D:

Afterward, there was a mix-and-mingle event which was attended by hundreds of AltspaceVR avatars (no bots, from what I could tell). It was the first time in almost a full year of pandemic lockdown that I truly felt that I was part of a crowd, and it reminded me of the big, splashy events that the old High Fidelity social VR platform used to hold, before they shut down. (*sigh* I still miss the old High Fidelity.)

The Microsoft Ignite mix-and-mingle afterparty in AltspaceVR (which was my first taste of being among a crowd of people in almost a whole year!)

Overall, it was a slick, very polished presentation, and I came away from it with a favourable impression. Other observers were less impressed with the show. Lucas Rizzotto sternly took Microsoft to task when he tweeted:

Microsoft Mesh’s announcement trailer is a highly misleading CG [Computer Generated] concept video that isn’t representative of what launched whatsoever. I love the HoloLens, but we really need to stop with these CG trailers. It’s setting false expectations & confusing EVERYONE.

Lucas continued:

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with “vision CG trailers”. Those can help audiences envision the future & they have a place in a marketer’s toolbelt. But this trailer was tied to an actual software release & that crosses a line. It’s advertising something that doesn’t exist.

I tried the app and was surprised to find something no different than Magic Leap’s Avatar Chat or Facebook Spaces. And honestly, that would have been fine to announce. They could have even done the CG bit later as a “Mesh in 5 years” segment. But they chose to mislead. Why?

Fabien Benetou linked to Lucas’s thread of tweets, saying:

I still didn’t have time check it BUT when I saw the hype and seeing some behind the scene professionally staffed green screen setup I did warn collaborators to NOT get excited before I can see what it actually is, not what it claims to be. Mind the marketing gap!

In my case, that initial “WOW!” first impression has not aged very well as I thought back about what I had seen. There was certainly lots of sizzle, but little evidence of actual steak: currently-available, deliverable VR/AR/XR/MR consumer product.

UPDATED March 6th, 2021: Charlie Fink alerted me to this technical overview of Microsoft Mesh, which you might find of interest (thanks, Charlie!).

UPDATED! Taking a Second Look at SuperWorld

Image taken from the SuperWorld website

I first took a look at SuperWorld (and another virtual world by the same co-founder, Max Woon, called Stan World), back in October of 2019, and I wrote up a blogpost about the projects. At the time, I thought SuperWorld was an intriguging, even audacious concept, but not something that I would personally choose to take part in. I added SuperWorld to my ever-growing list of metaverse platforms, and promptly forgot about it.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Will Burns (whom I have blogged about before here and here) ping me via Twitter, suggesting:

If it’s in your wheelhouse, Ryan, check out SuperWorld Inc. and its CEO, Hrish Lotlikar.

It turns out that Will Burns, along with a couple of other names I was familiar with, such as computer scientist Stephen Wolfram and blogger Robert Scoble, are on the advisory board for SuperWorld. So, I decided to revisit SuperWorld, just to see what has been going on since my last look-see in 2019.

Here’s a slick, one-minute introduction video for SuperWorld, narrated by its CEO Hrish Lotlikar, explaining the basic concept behind the project—you use cryptocurrency to buy and sell virtual real estate parcels, 100 metres by 100 metres in size, which correspond to actual, real-world locations on Earth:

You wanna own a piece of Central Park or the Taj Mahal? It’s yours, baby!

According to the project’s white paper:

In SuperWorld, users search for, share, and create persistent AR content and place it anywhere in the world. From photos and videos to 3D objects and animation, digital natives and first-timers alike are building creative new social communities as they explore the world in a one-of-a-kind interactive experience.

And I also found an hour-long interview with Hrish on YouTube, so I sat down and watched it early this morning, with a large mug of strong black coffee (I also perused their Investor’s Guide, which you can download from the SuperWorld website). The chat about SuperWorld starts at the 23 minute mark on the following video:

So, what do I think?

Well, Hrish seems very personable, and a natural connection-building type, qualities which make for a good startup founder and CEO. He and his co-founder, Max Woon, were inspired by the phenomenal success of Pokémon Go, and decided to build SuperWorld, to serve as a platform where the next Pokémon Go-like game could be hosted. He definitely has the vision! He even mentions Second Life when talking about SuperWorld! He’s a good interview subject, and I would encourage you to watch the whole video (or at least, the part where he talks about SuperWorld).

However…

In October 2019, I wrote:

The big problem will all of these projects is that they are being set up well before any kind of wearable augmented reality headgear becomes popular among consumers…

I do think that attempting to build a global augmented-reality overlay when we don’t have any kind of affordable, consumer-grade AR headset technology is a bit of a folly. There’s absolutely no guarantee that SuperWorld’s way of slicing up the real world is going to be accepted or adhered to by any other company.

And I am going to stand by these earlier observations. I mean, what’s to stop Facebook or Apple from creating their own augmented-reality system, overlaid over the real world, as part of any future AR headset they release, and making that the standard? Your whole business goes up in smoke.

The white paper talks about monetization opportunities involving advertising on these virtual parcels of real estate (think neon signs on the Taj Mahal), but I ask: do you honestly expect that people are going to download an app, and click on a map, just to watch an advertisement? Don’t we get bombarded with enough advertising as it is, without seeking out more?

The paper also talks about gaming, which is a possibility, but you really do need to add a lot more programming to the system to support something like that, something that I don’t really see in any of the promotional material for SuperWorld (aside from a brief glimpse of someone attempting to throw a basketball through a hoop).

If you buy one of these parcels, you’re going to be waiting quite a while to recoup your investment, and generate some income (and many crypto investors seem to have those as goals). And you can do a lot, lot more with the virtual land you can buy or lease from countless other social VR platforms and virtual worlds, which are more feature-filled than SuperWorld, and which allow you to visit it with other avatars simultaneously, to share the experience.

SuperWorld already has apps for both Apple and Android mobile devices for you to “visit” and “look at” your virtual land and whatever you choose to build on it (essentially, superimposed 3D objects, images and text on still photographs). However, I honestly do not consider cellphone-based AR to be true augmented reality. I also don’t consider it social augmented reality, or a “social community”, using the term used in their investor’s guide/white paper, which I quoted earlier.

I have spent time in a great many social VR platforms and virtual worlds, and those are places which you can actually explore with other people, as a shared experience. This is not a shared experience; it’s merely an app where you navigate through an overlay on a map, a solitary activity on your cellphone, like browsing through two-dimensional social media like Facebook or Twitter. There’s really very little to encourage community and connectedness.

SuperWorld’s attempt to carve out the real estate before there’s any sort of mutually-agreed-upon consensus on how to do that, or even any popular consumer augmented reality headsets for sale, still seems to me to be a highly speculative and risky endeavour. I am of the opinion that this is a concept which has been implemented way, waaay too early, in an attempt to cash in on the current VR/AR/MR/XR hype and tempt speculators to open their crypto wallets and part with some of their hard-earned currency.

(Sorry, Will. I know you probably would have liked me to review SuperWorld and love the project. I would probably still classify myself as a cryptoskeptic, which tends to colour my judgement. For example, I am mystified and bewildered by the success of collectibles such as CryptoKitties.)

As always, I include my standard warning about any and all blockchain and cryptocurrency projects: do every single scrap of your homework before you invest a penny in any project, no matter how enticing it sounds on paper (or in pixels). Personally, I wish the SuperWorld team the best, but I will continue to watch this project develop from the sidelines. Much like a very similar South Korean project called Mossland, I just don’t buy the concept underlying SuperWorld.

If you are interested in learning more about SuperWorld, check out their website and their YouTube videos, join their Discord server or Telegram discussion group, or follow them on various social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, even TikTok!

UPDATE 1:44 p.m.: I just discovered a second, more recent, one-hour interview with SuperWorld CEO Hrish Lotlikar, which I also plan to watch later today:

*sigh*

I realize that I have written yet another one of my critical (even cranky) blogposts this morning. I do apologize to Will, to Hrish, and to the team at SuperWorld. Perhaps Will is right; this sort of thing might not be in my wheelhouse, and I should stick with what I consider to be true metaverse platforms, including the blockchain-based virtual worlds Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space, each of which I have written about at length on this blog.

Apple Plans to Release a Virtual Reality Headset Next Year, According to Leaked Details in a Bloomberg News Report

Anonymous insiders have finally shared a few juicy details of Apple’s plans for a VR headset, a development that has been hinted at and highly anticipated by many tech observers. Bloomberg business reporter Mark Gurman tweeted four hours ago:

New story: Apple plans its first headset to be a high-end, niche VR-focused device as a precursor to its future AR glasses. Details on the headset’s design, prescription lens system, inclusion of a fan, features, development hurdles, and more:

The Bloomberg news story linked to Mark’s tweet, titled Apple’s First Headset to Be Niche Precursor to Eventual AR Glasses (original version; archived version) says in part:

Apple Inc.’s first crack at a headset is designed to be a pricey, niche precursor to a more ambitious augmented reality product that will take longer to develop, according to people with knowledge of the matter. 

As a mostly virtual reality device, it will display an all-encompassing 3-D digital environment for gaming, watching video and communicating. AR functionality, the ability to overlay images and information over a view of the real world, will be more limited. Apple has planned to launch the product as soon as 2022, going up against Facebook Inc.’s Oculus, Sony Corp.’s PlayStation VR and headsets from HTC Corp., the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing private plans. 

Gurman’s report has reignited feverish commentary and speculation within tech media (The Verge, Ars Technica, Apple Insider), which quickly began to ripple out to the mainstream news media (USA Today). The Apple VR headset is rumoured to be a high-end standalone (untethered) device, perhaps costing in the neighbourhood of the Valve Index headset (around US$1,000).

One disappointing piece of news is that the rumoured Apple VR headset will not have extra room for people who wear glasses (as I do), opting instead for prescription lenses, an additional expense for those of us with less-than-perfect vision. This will no doubt complicate both the sale and setup of the system.

Among the details leaked in the Gurman report was that Apple “may sell only one headset per day per retail store” of the high-end VR device, which on first reading sounds rather absurdly low to me. Surely, an Apple-branded VR headset would sell like hotcakes, regardless of price?

Anyway, things are definitely getting interesting. Stay tuned! Hopefully we will learn more about Apple’s plans for virtual reality and augmented reality this year.

iLRN Is Hosting the 19th IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR 2020) in VirBELA, November 9th to 13th, 2020

The IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR) is the premier conference for Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR). ISMAR explores the advances in commercial and research activities related to AR and MR and Virtual Reality (VR) by continuing the expansion of its scope over the past several years. The symposium is organized and supported by the IEEE Computer Society, IEEE VGTC and ACM SIGGRAPH.

Here are the virtual conference details from an email I received:


The Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN) is proud to be hosting the 19th IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR 2020) on our iLRN Virtual Campus, powered by VirBELA, and to be supporting the conference as a Gold Sponsor. ISMAR is the premier technical and scientific research conference on AR and MR technologies. There is still time to register for this exciting conference!

Come along to learn from and interact with researchers from all over the world, who will be sharing the latest advances in the field. In addition, through an immersive experience, you will have the opportunity to enjoy Brazilian cultural attractions in a unique and unforgettable way!

Note: The iLRN Virtual Campus is accessible either (a) in desktop mode on a PC or Mac; or (b) using a tethered PC VR headset (HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest with Link Cable). Sessions will also be streamed on YouTube Live.

Here’s a link to the official conference website with all the details.

The cost to attend this virtual conference is only US$50 for IEEE members, and US$60 for non-members. Here is registration information for the conference.