Laptop showing Microsoft Teams logo.
Image: monticellllo/Adobe Stock

In the latest Microsoft Work Trend Index, 80% of workers say they’re just as productive or more so since switching to remote and hybrid work. On the other hand, almost everyone complains about how many virtual meetings they have and that they can end up double or triple booked.

Looking at a recorded meeting that you missed — or had on in the background while you were handling other work — can mean sitting through a lot of topics that aren’t relevant to catch the five minutes where your boss volunteers you for something important.

New Microsoft Teams Premium features

The new Microsoft Teams Premium features promise to help with that. In addition, it hopes to make organizations more comfortable that external meetings represent their brand well and that internal meetings are secure.

It includes meeting templates, which Microsoft calls guides, that IT can create with the right settings for calls with customers, internal meetings for brainstorming or calls to the help desk as well as for things like retention and whether the URL is private or can be shared.

For external meetings, you can add your company logo to meeting lobbies and create custom backgrounds and Together Mode templates, or you can send text message or email reminders to customers to remind them when they’ve booked a meeting or appointment with you.

There’s also a virtual appointments view to help manage bookings and an advanced set of tools for managing webinars, with registration flows, waitlists, a green room for presenters and the option to manage what attendees see, so they’re not distracted by someone who isn’t the presenter turning on their camera or trying to share their screen.

SEE: Microsoft Teams cheat sheet: Complete guide for 2022 (TechRepublic)

There are also more security options for what Teams product marketing director Caroline Stanford called “cone of silence” meetings at the recent Microsoft Ignite conference; those are the digital version of board meetings, financial planning meetings or reviews of unannounced products in the office “with the blinds closed and the door locked.”

These are end-to-end encrypted, with a verification code appearing on-screen that everyone can check and with watermarks that remind everyone the meeting’s content is confidential. Plus, you can use Microsoft Purview Information Protection sensitivity labels to apply the right settings for specific kinds of meetings.

What most people will find particularly useful is the intelligent meeting recap (Figure A). If you can’t attend a meeting or have to leave halfway through one, this Microsoft Teams feature will automatically find the section of the meeting where you’re mentioned, so you can just review that part of the recording.

“If someone says ‘Caroline, you agreed to send the agenda,’ I’d love it to tell me I agreed to send the agenda because I may not realize I agreed to do that,” Stanford explained.

Figure A

Microsoft Teams Premium extracts the important information from meetings, such as who has promised to do what.
Microsoft Teams Premium extracts the important information from meetings, such as who has promised to do what. Image: Microsoft

Confusingly, this isn’t the same as the existing Microsoft Teams Rooms Premium, which is a set of admin tools to manage meeting rooms for hybrid in-person meetings. Some Microsoft customers have already been trying the features that are now part of Microsoft Teams Premium without knowing the features would cost extra; the public preview will start in December, with general availability expected in February 2023.

Many of the tools in Microsoft Teams Premium are more powerful versions of the basic tools already in Teams, and it makes sense that there’s an extra charge for them. Others rely on services beyond Microsoft Teams that use other Azure resources like Cognitive Search and Streams video processing that breaks the meeting video into chapters, all of which need to be paid for.

Teams Premium is charged as a likely $10 per user per month license because, while it’s useful for the organizer to have the right meeting template, Microsoft thinks the real value is individual employees knowing what they’ve committed or been assigned to do. That may not make as much sense for company-wide features like the advanced webinar controls.

Personalized Mesh 3D avatars are coming soon

Microsoft is also close to making personalized Mesh avatars available (Figure B), where you can customize a 3D avatar to look like you and match your body language, so you can attend a meeting “in person,” which is more engaging for colleagues, without needing to have your camera on.

Figure B

Pick a Mesh avatar and background the same way you would turn your camera on or blur your background.
Pick a Mesh avatar and background the same way you would turn your camera on or blur your background. Image: Microsoft

That’s handy for days when you’re so busy you’re eating lunch in a meeting, or if you feel pressure to always look perfect on camera (shy people may feel less comfortable on camera), or if you just don’t have the energy to be seen (even extroverts get camera fatigue).

If you’re in a different time zone, there may not be enough light for you to show up well on camera, and not everyone has the budget for a ring light to get a more professional look. If you’re somewhere with not enough bandwidth to do video, using an avatar would also help; and, if you’re on a device that doesn’t have a camera, you can still feel fully part of the meeting.

SEE: Home video setup: What you need to look and sound professional (TechRepublic Premium)

In California, schools can’t ask children under the age of 18 to turn on their camera, but teachers want to be able to see if remote pupils are present and engaged. Similarly, if you’re giving a presentation or conducting training, seeing avatars nodding along is much nicer than seeing a sea of initials representing people with their camera off who haven’t uploaded a photo to their profile.

That’s even more important if the meeting uses Together Mode, and you don’t want to leave an empty seat. It’s part of what researchers at Microsoft’s Mixed Reality and AI lab call true “presence” — the feeling that you are with a person who is perhaps hundreds of miles away.

Mesh avatars are animated not by looking at video from your webcam but by using your audio: The avatar lip syncs with what you say, with the face and body animated to match what your voice sounds like.

The difference between Mesh avatars and the custom 3D avatars you can build on other platforms, like SnapChat Bitmoji and iOS Memoji, isn’t just that you can customize them to look more like you or the way can they mirror your physical behavior in real time (e.g., from iOS 15, you can use Memoji in a FaceTime call), it’s that the same technology will be on multiple services and devices beyond Teams.

Mesh for Teams is part of Microsoft’s mixed reality technology. It’s available on HoloLens and virtual reality devices like the latest Meta Quest headsets and on other VR platforms like AltspaceVR, so you don’t have to spend time making another representative avatar for every new space you use.

Mesh avatars for Microsoft Teams is still a private preview organizations can sign up for, but Stanford described it as “very close to availability for everyone” likely within the next couple of months. Being able to reuse the work you put into 3D assets elsewhere should make it more appealing for organizations that don’t want to commit to a metaverse strategy while the technology is still evolving.

SEE: Quick glossary: Metaverse (TechRepublic Premium)

Mesh avatars don’t attempt to be photorealistic, but Microsoft has done research into creating 360-degree 3D photorealistic avatars using a smartphone camera and machine learning, as well as how to render those in real time at high frame rates on mainstream PCs. If avatars prove popular, photorealistic options could be the next step.

That’s currently more of an option for technologies like Microsoft’s mixed reality HoloLens headset, which offers “holoportation” —  putting a life-sized photorealistic hologram of a person attending a meeting remotely into the same physical space as the in-person attendees and showing them everything in the room virtually. Microsoft researchers have talked about combining the reach of Mesh avatars that are available on any device with the realism of holoportation as “the Holy Grail.”

When will Microsoft make these features available?

If you’re eagerly awaiting Mesh avatars or any other upcoming features, one perennial problem with new features in Teams and other Microsoft 365 products is knowing when they will actually reach your tenant. Features are rolled out gradually and can be paused or even rolled back if a problem shows up, so even if your entire tenant is set up for “first release,” which should get you all new features as they reach preview, you might find some of your users have a new feature and others don’t.

In Spring 2023, Microsoft will give Teams admins a landing page that will have more information about which features are rolling out, which features have been paused and when a new feature has been fully deployed to all tenants.

If your company doesn’t have a video and online conferencing policy, this TechRepublic Premium download can save the day. Plus, through Dec. 7, you can get a 30% discount off of an annual subscription to TechRepublic Premium by using the code bf22-30. Act now, and start accessing hundreds of ready-made IT and management policies, hiring kits, checklists and more!

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