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A Representation of the Real You as Your Visual Presence in Teams Meetings
Updated 27 March 2023
In October 2022, Microsoft introduced Mesh Avatars for Teams to a private preview. According to Microsoft, mesh (3D) avatars are “one of our first steps to enabling metaverse experiences for customers” before going on to say “With Mesh avatars, employees will be able to connect with presence in Microsoft Teams meetings without turning their camera on. They can represent themselves the way they want to show up by choosing the avatar fits their specific meeting— from casual, professional, or day-to-day.”
Since the announcement, I’ve heard a variety of reactions ranging from unbridled enthusiasm from people like MVP Vesa Nopanen to “nah, why bother.” I’m in the middle. I see value in allowing people to represent themselves in online meetings with an avatar in many circumstances. For instance, people with a facial injury might prefer to use an avatar instead of exposing themselves to comments about their injury. On the other end of the spectrum, if I’ve just crawled out of bed and am not in the most visually appealing shape to participate in a call, using an avatar might be better than turning on video and showing the disheveled reality . Another good use of avatars is when you’re the first person in a meeting and you want to establish a “holding pattern” so that people who join know that you’re there but aren’t quite ready to communicate.
MC533652 (March 27) announced that avatars are available to Teams preview users. According to Microsoft 365 roadmap item 107969, Microsoft Teams avatars will roll-out in May 2023. Microsoft hasn’t said if using avatars will require a premium license.
What Avatars Can Do in Teams Meetings
Some must-known things about using avatars in Teams meetings include:
- Avatars are optional. Ignore them if you want to. If you use an avatar, it replaces the video stream from the workstation camera, so the camera is off during the meeting. You can switch between the camera and avatars during a call. Avatars appear in meetings in all Teams clients, but you can only create avatars and select avatars for meetings with the desktop and browser clients.
- A user can have up to three avatars that they can select from before or during a meeting. For instance, they could have a very professional avatar for formal customer meetings and a more informal version for internal gatherings.
- You can combine avatars with other visual effects, like a background image. However, avatars have their own set of background images and don’t support custom background images. Given the popularity of custom background images for Teams meetings, Microsoft might well close this gap soon.
- Avatars are not static. They react to audio and “twitch” from time to time to provide some visual interest. In addition, avatar “reactions” are available during meetings to allow the avatar to express emotion or react to what’s going on in the call.
- Avatars are only available in your home tenant. You can join a meeting in a host tenant (without switching) and use an avatar, but if you switch and sign in as a guest to another tenant, your avatars are unavailable.
With those points in mind, let’s take a quick look at how to create avatars and use them during Teams meetings.
The Mesh Avatars App
Users build and maintain their set of up to three avatars with the Mesh Avatars app. Like other Teams apps, administrators can disable the app in the Teams admin center if they don’t want people to use it (Figure 1) and control access through an app permissions policy. Blocking the app stops people accessing the app and prevents them using avatars they’ve already created in Teams meetings.
Assuming that the app is available, we can load it through the Apps menu and start to build an avatar. You can also create an avatar from the Avatars and Effects option in a Teams meeting. However, I think most people will create their avatar well before attempting to use it in a call.
The avatar creation experience (Figure 2) will delight some and terrify others. The range of customization options is deliberately huge to accommodate as many different people as possible from all ethnic backgrounds and appearances.
After occupying many hours deciding on just the right body shape, clothes, hair, skin tone, and shade of lipstick, save the result to create your avatar. I am rubbish at creating anything artistic, so the avatars I generated are poor representations of the real me.
In some respects, it doesn’t matter how accurate an avatar is because an avatar isn’t supposed to be a 100% representation of a human. Although you might feel that an avatar should look like the person it represents, does it matter if that person decides to do something different? After all, people can use custom background image to represent them during Teams meetings and no one thinks this strange. It’s the same if they decide to create an avatar that projects their chosen image.
In later iterations, Microsoft might make it possible for people to upload a headshot photo and use that as the basis to create an avatar. Being able to use a photo would make avatar creation faster and more accessible, not to mention more accurate (even after a few tweaks). Of course, that assumes that the auto-avatar creation process results in something that doesn’t look like a cross between you and Frankenstein.
Using an Avatar in a Teams Meeting
After creating an avatar, it becomes available for use in Teams meetings. The meeting pre-join screen allows a user to select between video effects (like background blur, custom background images, and video filters).
After joining the meeting, the avatar takes the place of the normal video stream generated from the camera or user photo (if video is off). It’s as simple as that. If you use a live reaction (not an emoji) during a call, the avatar mimics the action. Similarly, if you use the raise your hand feature to attract the speaker’s attention, the avatar raises their hand (Figure 4).
In addition to the basic meeting reactions, avatars have a set of purpose-built reactions to help express feelings (Figure 5).
Although you can pin your favorite reactions for faster access, pinning doesn’t add those reactions to the set displayed by the React button. Instead, you navigate to the Effects and Avatars option from the More […] menu and select the reaction from there. This is fine when you have the time to think about what reaction to use, but avatar reactions are not as engaging or useful as they could be if users could pin their favorite reactions to a more prominent position in the main meeting window.
Avatar settings (Figure 6) allow users to tweak the appearance of their avatar by:
- Moving the avatar to the left or right rather than looking straight ahead.
- Zooming the avatar in or out to appear larger or smaller on screen.
- Expressing a mood in a range from unhappy to happy. Mood changes by updating the appearance of the eyes and mouth. An avatar with twinkling eyes and a grinning mouth is happy. One with blank expressionless eyes and a straight mouth gives a different impression.
Who’s for Mesh Avatars in Teams?
I can see why some will like using avatars. They can be fun (hours of endless editing to create the perfect virtual you) and can help to avoid some element of meeting fatigue. Using an avatar won’t make an intolerable, boring meeting any more palatable. You’ll still have to suffer through the droning inanity that is the hallmark of so many corporate gatherings, but I guess you could liven things up a tad by dropping an avatar reaction into the mix every so often, if only to see if anyone responds. It might just wake up some of the folks who sleep through boring meetings.
On the administrative front, I don’t see any way to track the use of avatars or who’s created avatars. No records are in the audit log to record use of the Mesh Avatars app or the use of avatars in meetings.
Avatars are very personal. Use them if you like. Ignore them if you don’t see the value. Microsoft hasn’t said how they will license Mesh Avatars for Teams. It’s possible that avatars will be a Teams Premium feature. If so, the decision to use avatars might be taken away from users based on the cost of the extra licenses.
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