Microsoft announced Microsoft Mesh Avatars for Teams during Microsoft Ignite 2022 event. I touched about avatars in my Ignite news blog post earlier, but now it is the time to take a better look what Mesh Avatars can do and how they can change meetings. I have been using these Avatars in the Private Preview already for some time and exceptionally I have Microsoft’s permission to write publicly about Avatars – usually features and capabilities in the private preview are strictly under NDA, but I am happy Avatars are exception to that. Thank you Laurie & Jesse at Microsoft for making this happen! 🙏
Disclaimer: Mesh Avatars are still in the Preview and of course things can change before they are publicly available.
Some facts first, as a recap
- Mesh Avatars are audio-driven, which means that when you speak the avatar speaks
- It has some idle animations, so it doesn’t appear static
- You can change the background used in meetings
- You can switch between camera and avatar during a meeting
- When you are using avatar, the camera is off
- You can use various avatar reactions to express yourself in the meeting
- If you use regular Teams meeting expressions they are shown on top of avatar normally
- You can build up to three avatar variations
All good? Let’s go ahead, since my avatar also approves.
Personally I have two avatars currently in the use – the one for professional / business meetings. That avatar is always well dressed and doesn’t have a funny hat or any other fun added to it. I also have other avatars that are meant for more relaxed meetings – such as usable on internal events / meetings. I could use them also on more relaxed customer facing events. The third one for me could just to experiment and have fun – perhaps try out something new there.
What I did miss, is that my Australian style hat wasn’t included in headwear selections. But I do understand that the line must be drawn somewhere..
Using your avatar in the meeting
When you are joining a Teams meeting, you can choose your avatar and customizer the background as well very easily.
During the meeting you can open the avatar-panel via … -menu and open Effects & Avatars
In this menu you can select or change your avatar whenever you want to. This is also the place where you can find those avatar reactions.
There are lots of reactions to avatars. What is great that you can pin the ones you like to use the most.
This makes using them during a meeting a lot easier and natural.
What I have found out is that it is a very good practice to use these reactions during the meeting. If the avatar has only the idle animation on – it is a bit boring after a while. But once you use nodding, head shaking and other more subtle reactions (we do need more of these for sure!) it tells also that you are paying attention to the speaker. And it makes you feel much more present and engaged in the meeting as well. In the beginning you will see a lot of those big and fun reactions be used when people are trying them out – but in the real meeting those can be distracting to the speaker just as well as doing something silly camera open. In time there will be a balance after people have experimented with reactions and can see which ones fit their style and how they want to express themselves. I am glad there are also those silly reactions, because there are different kinds of meetings as well. It is up for people to think what kind of reactions would be good for the moment.
When you are using the avatar and want to participate in the feeling, it means that you need to have Effects and Avatars pane open so you can use reactions. This means that you are switching between chat, apps, avatars and other panels more than before. It would be easier to use pinned avatars reactions if they were in the top bar reactions-area (there liking, heart, raise hand and others are). It is good to keep in mind that Avatars are in the Preview, and things can change before they are generally available.
You can also change avatar background, just like you would change your own when using the video.
The Avatar mood can help you express your overall feeling as well. You can go all the way towards the typical Finnish expression, if you like. For me, as a Finnish person, using the avatar to express me as a smiling person is way more effortless than the real life. You can’t turn your avatar to angry, which is a good thing here I think.
You can also adjust the camera with position and zoom setting.
Personally I feel the standard zoom is the one that works the best.
You can also choose a different avatar during the meeting – but before it is visible to others you need to remember to use Apply avatars-button.
Benefits of using the avatar
Avatars are dividing a lot of opinions. Some people don’t see any use for them and some can’t wait to get started using them daily. Some organizations might even deny the use of avatars. However it has been proven by many studies that having lots of meetings is impacting to the meeting fatigue. And when you are in the meetings camera off, your expressions are not transferred to other participants since your still photo (or initials) is static. This is one of those moments where avatars can help a lot: people can see you are there and that you are paying attention as well.
There are various good use cases for avatars, that I have crossed my meetings already
- Someone didn’t have time for a break and is eating while in the meeting. We don’t want to see that.
- You are walking around (outside or inside). Camera doesn’t make any sense in this case most of the time.
- You are under the weather – perhaps a bit ill, tired or just had a really chaotic day.
- Meeting fatigue. You just don’t want to turn on camera on the day anymore.
- You are introvert or feeling uncertain of yourself – using the avatar may enable you to speak with less stress.
- It is a late hour or early morning meeting.
- Bad lighting conditions – it is no fan for others if your video is very dark or very bright.
- You are using HoloLens or VR headset to join the meeting (Thank you Sylvain for pointing this at comments!)
In my experience avatars are helping me out daily. It can reduce some camera use, yes, but I think it would be a very narrow line in those meetings if I had the camera off anyway.
Of course it takes time for people to get used to Mesh Avatars. Now they are new and since they are not photorealistic they feel like they don’t belong to the workplace. It is good that there is time to adapt and go through the change process how the world is evolving towards the Metaverse.
Creating and customizing your avatar
When I hit the plus sign, I can choose to duplicate existing avatar or create a brand new one. This means that I can have three avatars that could be really different – even be different genders. And if you just want to change the outfit, it makes sense to duplicate your avatar to save you the trouble for customizing all features again.
Let’s Duplicate our avatar and give it a new outfit. This takes us to Customize screen where we can do any changes to the body itself as well.
There are lots of options how you can create the avatar to your liking.
However, it still seems very difficult for me to create an avatar that would look just like me. Perhaps my Finnish genes don’t fit to the stereotypes and models in the app.. One clear improvement would be to have a avatar creation based on a photo, but for that we will have to wait and see if and when it will become available in the future.
Of course if you are thinking how you would look in a different kind of hair (and have a relatively matching avatar) you could try it in the customization before going to the real barber.
What I really like in these avatar options, is that these don’t try to make everyone look like they are in their prime 20s or superheroes. You can add age effects and play around with hair color and various other customization ways. There are truly a lot of options for building your avatar!
Most options will have also a good selection of colors available, so you can tune your avatar’s colors to your liking.
The selection of hats is missing actually two important pieces for me.
One missing hat is the Australian style, that Panama hat doesn’t really look good enough to me (it is close though). And the other one is the classic British country / gentleman’s cap (aka Peaky Blinders cap). But there are other great options to choose from as well – especially if you want to have some fun.
And that is really is – you can customize your avatars any time you want to as well. Having the option for three different avatars really makes it possible to have some fun also in some meetings. Just pay attention to which kind of meeting you are joining to, so you choose the one fitting the style and mood of the event.