Microsoft on Thursday announced hardware and software enhancements arriving this year that promise to improve remote meetings and team collaborations for organizations.
The hardware side involves some new peripheral products (cameras and speakers) that work with Microsoft-branded videoconferencing gear. That gear includes the Microsoft Surface 85-inch-screen videoconferencing products, built by Microsoft, plus the Microsoft Teams Rooms videoconferencing devices, which are built by Microsoft’s partners. Both devices support video meetings, voice-over-IP, presence and Microsoft Teams chat functions. However, the Surface Hub is distinguished by also having white-boarding and Office applications.
On the software side, Microsoft announced coming perks for users of the Microsoft Teams collaboration service, as well as Microsoft Viva, Microsoft’s relatively new “employee experience platform.” Software improvements also are coming for Microsoft Whiteboard, a screen app used for collaboratively sketching ideas during meetings. Emerging Microsoft Office365 Vietnam “fluid components,” used to facilitate collaborations on the fly in applications, also are coming.
More Natural Remote Meetings
Microsoft’s meetings enhancements are supporting the current work-from-home trend, dubbed “hybrid work,” according to Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, in the announcement. He suggested that Microsoft’s solutions are bringing organizations “a new operating model for people, places and process.”
The coming improvements announced on Thursday generally aim to make remote meetings seem more natural. Microsoft has made many attempts to this end over the years, as described in this Microsoft hybrid meeting experience article.
For instance, Microsoft initiated a “Project Malta” research project to study remote meetings experiences. It set up a testing room, called the “Hive,” to design optimal meeting spaces. In the end, Microsoft concluded from its research findings that offering “a good view of the in-room participants” to remote viewers and “normalizing the sizes of people’s remote video feeds” would make remote meetings seem less fatiguing to viewers.
Fluid Components Expansion
Microsoft had introduced a preview of fluid components for Microsoft Teams in its May 2021 Build event. These fluid components enable messaging from software components, such as action items, lists or tables, when using the Teams service.
Microsoft’s Thursday announcement explained that fluid components also are now newly coming to “OneNote, Outlook and Whiteboard to make it easier to collaborate synchronously and asynchronously across Teams and Office apps.” The exact timing when these fluid components will be integrated, though, wasn’t described. A search for “fluid components” at the Microsoft 365 roadmap page drew a blank.
The coming fluid components are new Microsoft 365 solutions built on the Microsoft Fluid Framework, a Web-based “componentized document model for shared, interactive experiences” that was first introduced at the 2019 Microsoft Build event. These fluid components will be coming to the Microsoft Teams and Whiteboard applications sometime this summer, according to this The Verge article written by Tom Warren, who interviewed Microsoft principals, including Spataro, about the fluid components.
Front Row View in Teams Rooms
Microsoft’s main improvement for enhancing remote meeting experiences seems to be its new “front row” feature for Teams Rooms.
With the front row feature, remote meeting participants appear in a row at the bottom of a screen, which is supposed to be at the same eye level as would be experienced if they had actually been seated in a meeting room. The top of the screen can then be used to display presentation materials. There’s also screen room on the sides to display other materials, such as a meeting agenda and a chat window.
The new front row feature “will be supported across both single and dual display configurations,” Microsoft explained in a Teams Rooms announcement. It’s expected to arrive “over the course of this year.”
Teams Rooms on Surface Hub Preview
Microsoft is planning to offer Windows Insider for Surface Hub program testers a “new Microsoft Teams Rooms on Surface Hub experience” at the preview stage, starting “next week.”
Bringing the Teams Rooms experience to Surface Hub is a somewhat confusing concept because the Surface Hub has more capabilities (such as Office apps and a white-boarding app) than the partner-built Teams Rooms devices. Microsoft seems to just mean that the Surface Hub will be getting better meeting controls.
Here’s how Microsoft described it in this announcement on the Microsoft Teams Rooms on Surface Hub experience:
With a new meeting stage, a robust set of meeting controls, and popular features including Together Mode scenes, background noise suppression, chat bubbles, and live reactions, Teams Rooms on Surface Hub enriches collaboration for the hybrid workplace. You can easily access your Microsoft 365 files and confidently present using features like PowerPoint Live in Teams, letting you see slides, notes, and your audience all in one view.
Microsoft is planning to make its Chromium-based Edge browser the default browser with the Teams Rooms on Surface Hub experience. It’ll add a management capability for the Teams Rooms on Surface Hub capabilities in the Microsoft Teams Admin Center portal, which is expected to arrive “later this year.”
New Whiteboard App
The Microsoft Whiteboard application, which lets people draw diagrams collaboratively using digital inking, is now described as being “completely new.” It has a new “Fluent toolbar” and improved inking capabilities when using a mouse. Drawn shapes get automatically straightened with a “shape recognition” capability.
The new Whiteboard app has various collaboration improvements. “Collaboration cursors” appear to identify people working together on a whiteboard. Microsoft added a laser pointer tool. It also added a “follow along” feature and new templates.
Users can create collaborative diagrams. They can insert images and documents, or write notes in the Whiteboard app. Microsoft also added so-called “reaction stickers,” which can be used to show participant responses.
The new Whiteboard app has been integrated into various Microsoft 365 applications. It’s available in SharePoint Intranet and OneDrive for Business, as well as Office.com. It’s newly available in “Teams channels and chats,” per the announcement.
Headspace Coming to Microsoft Viva Insights
Microsoft is planning introduce a Headspace work-life balance application into its Microsoft Viva Insights application in Teams “starting later this month,” according to an announcement. The Headspace app sets aside employee time for rest via “guided meditations and mindfulness exercises.”
The Viva Insights app also will be getting a new focus mode, coming “later this year,” that helps employees set aside daily focus time. Users get focus music from Headspace. There’s also a timer that can be used for tasks.
Also coming later this year to Viva Insights will be the ability to configure “quiet time,” which silences Outlook and Teams mobile notifications.
Some of these capabilities can be set by IT pros. For instance, there will be a new organization-level “quiet time” policy that will be coming to Microsoft Endpoint Manager.
Microsoft plans to answer questions about Viva Insights in a coming Ask Microsoft Anything event, scheduled for June 23, 2021. Viva configuration details for IT pros can be found in Microsoft Mechanics videos.
Microsoft Teams Rooms Hardware News
Microsoft has a new hardware partner, Neat, which, along with Jabra, Logitech and Poly, has implemented artificial intelligence-enabled cameras to optimize online meetings using Microsoft Teams Rooms devices. Product details about these cameras weren’t described, though.
Microsoft also this week announced new “intelligent speakers” for Microsoft Teams Rooms devices made by Epos and Yealink. These first new products, available in preview for Teams Rooms Standard or Premium licensees, include the Epos Capture 5 and the Yealink MSpeech intelligent speakers. These products get sold individually or bundled into Microsoft Teams Rooms on Windows products, but they are just available in U.S. English right now.
The concept behind intelligent speakers is that they can deliver “high quality audio experiences to remote participants.” They are “optimized for Cortana voice assistance” as well, enabling the starting and ending of meetings using voice commands.
Microsoft also touted intelligent speakers as enabling “live transcription in a shared environment,” with the ability to identify the people speaking within the transcript. This transcription capability makes note taking optional. The Microsoft Graph is used “contextualize” the transcript by defining acronyms and identifying colleagues. These intelligent speakers can identify up to 10 people in a room using its seven-microphone array, the announcement explained.
Microsoft offered an assurance that the voice identification data used with intelligent speakers “will be securely stored in the Office 365 Cloud, and users will retain control of their information, including the ability to delete it at any time.” IT departments also can turn off the voice recognition feature.
“Additionally, admins have full control to turn on/off people identification through voice recognition feature across the organization,” the announcement stated.