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This is how we will meet in the next pandemic

New platforms

It’s possible? This is what Microsoft believes, which at the beginning of March 2021 presented a platform called Mesh, its new strategy for working in the era of mixed reality, as they call the combination of physical and digital worlds that goes one step further. beyond augmented reality: It is not limited to superimposing virtual information on the environment, but it turns it into a 3D model on which to superimpose that information.

This creates a closer fusion of the real and the digital, until they are almost indistinguishable. In mixed reality, for example, a virtual object captures if someone stands in front of it, and in that case it disappears from the vision of the person looking at it from the front, just as it would happen in the physical world. Mesh allows different people to share a room with virtual projections or avatars created with HoloLens, the augmented reality glasses that the company has sold since 2016. Its second generation, on sale since 2019 – for now it is only for professionals and developers – is It has been used in various settings, from supporting surgical operations to Mars exploration trials.

They are not a virtual reality headset. They allow you to see the world as if they were ordinary glasses, but superimpose artificial images with which you can interact. They are not cheap (they cost 3,200 euros), but in a sense they can be considered as a prototype, a trial of the type of augmented and mixed reality glasses that we will begin to see more frequently in a few years.

HoloLens uses an advanced set of sensors to detect the depth of an environment and place the different virtual elements on it. This makes it possible to walk around objects and people recreated in a virtual way as if they were present in the room. With the Mesh platform, two users in the same place can share these 3D model viewing experiences. The object appears anchored to the same point in physical space for both, as if it were real, and it is possible to examine it together, look at it from different angles or see how it evolves over time.

Two physically separated people can appear in each other’s field of view as a hologram, something Microsoft calls holoportation. These are somewhat ghostly images, captured with several cameras aided by a ldar, a device based on the emission of laser beams, developed to detect the depth of the scene and which can be found on some mobiles. The image emerges floating in the scene, imitating the movements that the individual makes in the real world.

Interlocutors can also choose whether they want to appear as a somewhat cartoonish model of themselves, an avatar similar to the Memojis of Apple products, or the Bitmojis that are often sent as responses to WhatsApp messages. Virtual puppets with enough facial and gesture expression to communicate efficiently.

The applications of these types of tools are diverse, often adding a layer of interactivity and realism that is not possible with traditional video conferencing applications, such as Zoom, even when sharing a screen. The Mesh platform, for example, will be used by scientists from the OceanX organization to study the ocean floor, from holographic recreations built with the recordings and photos taken by autonomous submarines. NASA already used a prototype of these tools to study Martian soil in a pilot program four years ago, and that experience has been key in developing this new technique.

“The idea is to take all this scientific data that we are collecting, bring it to a holographic environment and use it as a way to guide missions in real time – explains researcher Vincent Pieribone, vice president of OceanX. And he adds–: There is an essential social component in this. We want to bring everyone to the same room, so that they can exchange experiences and have a human connection ”. It seems true that the factor of social relations is the most important in this equation. No matter how advanced the current videoconferencing tools are, they still cannot generate the conditions of free exchange of ideas that usually accompany joint work sessions, and which sometimes end with valuable serendipities.

Microsoft points to other applications and jobs where its new tool promises: a travel company could create a virtual tour of the ruins of ancient Greece; an architecture studio you would create a digital twin of the building you are designing, for team members to create and collaborate no matter where they live; In an industrial plant, a specialist could work virtually alongside colleagues on the production line.

We cannot forget the possible playful applications of Mesh, which will be integrated with existing collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Dynamics 365. During the presentation of the platform, Niantic, the creator of the game Pokémon Go, showed what it would be like to play a version of its popular title with the HoloLens on.

If we are unfortunate enough to run into a virus like COVID-19 again and we must confine ourselves, technologies like Mesh’s could be essential to continue much of the work. And if all goes well and we recover – even if it is not completely – our old life, at least it will be one of the tools that will give us a little more freedom.

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