Software

SharePoint Spaces: Microsoft takes collaboration to a new dimension with mixed reality

SharePoint is for collaborating on every business process, and that now includes virtual, augmented and mixed reality.

Virtual and augmented reality might be moving from a novelty to a useful tool. Certainly, software vendors like Microsoft and Adobe are taking VR and AR seriously. Adobe's Project Aero shows that the company is expecting mainstream designers to need to create AR and VR experiences, while Microsoft has already taken a big bet on mixed reality — a system that lets developers create experiences that work on both HoloLens and VR headsets from OEMs like HP, Dell and Samsung. Now Microsoft is putting mixed reality into its most mainstream enterprise product: SharePoint.

This isn't some clunky VR interface that pretends your digital documents live in a physical filing cabinet, or that a SharePoint library is a physical library you have to walk through. It's about treating 3D like just another content type alongside Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, Visio diagrams, photos of receipts, videos and the 250-plus file formats that SharePoint can already show in preview. You've been able to view several 3D formats (like 3MF, FBX, OBJ, PLY and STL) as thumbnails or full-screen files in SharePoint libraries in any modern browser for a year.

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What SharePoint Spaces adds is the ability to easily build a 3D portal to bring together 3D content — whether that's a 3D CAD model of a product, a 360-degree video (which you can now shoot on most smartphones or on increasingly cheaper 360 cameras) or a 3D exploration of data, like sales figures or org charts. The latter might sound a bit cheesy, but data visualisation can make it easier to spot patterns and anomalies. Using a HoloLens to view and manipulate 3D visualisations of sales figures or business workflows has been a big hit with the Fortune 500 executives who visit KPMG's Insights Centres around the world, for example. SharePoint Spaces can create a 3D visualisation of Power BI data, so instead of staring at a 2D spreadsheet trying to understand where sales are soaring or plummeting, you can get a visual representation that makes it immediately obvious.

That doesn't necessarily mean putting on a VR headset, unless you want to be immersed in a 360 video or manipulate a 3D object as if you were holding it. SharePoint Spaces 3D and VR works in any browser, even on a smartphone if it supports WebVR, as well as in VR headsets including the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and any Windows Mixed Reality headset.

From HR to VR

Getting new employees up to speed with your business is a pertinent use case. HR teams spend a lot of time onboarding new staff, giving them handbooks and orientation lectures. Alternatively, you could email out a welcome pack with a link to a SharePoint site where they could explore a 360 video of the office building (so they know where the kitchen and the coffee machine are), drill into a 3D org chart (so they can see how the team they're joining fits in with the rest of the company), and look through a catalogue of the products your business makes — seeing them all in 3D (so they can really understand what they are and how they work), with annotations like the price or who the product is designed for.

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A company org chart, in Sharepoint Space guise.

Image: Microsoft

"People learn best when their curiosity is engaged," said SharePoint product marketing director Dan Holme. "If you put them in a space and immerse them, then they can deep-dive into the things they're interested in and touch on the other things lightly."

How many companies are ready to do that? Is 3D visualisation and VR so ready to take off in business that it needs to be in the standard content collaboration tool that many enterprises use as their intranet? (Although it's currently an early and limited preview to which you have to request access, SharePoint Spaces will be part of all Office 365 commercial plans.)

Office 365 customers are already storing over a petabyte of 3D content in SharePoint libraries, but Jeff Teper, the corporate vice-president who runs SharePoint, is famous for not waiting for customers to be ready to adopt new technologies. In 2011, he realised that if Microsoft waited for its Office users or the IT teams managing Office to tell them when they were ready to move to the cloud, it wouldn't be able to build cloud services in time.

There was an echo of that readiness to get out in front of the market in Teper's comments about the customers with whom he discussed SharePoint Spaces, when Microsoft was deciding whether to build the feature. "As you'd expect, there was a core group that was really interested and then a set of people that said 'I don't need this yet'. But there were people who didn't get the graphical user interface or the web or smartphones when they came out. Not everybody has to get it at the beginning of a technology sea-change to start the market."

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The idea of a more immersive way to get new employees up to speed or to train existing employees on new products and services was very popular, which might have something to do with the arrival of millennials in the workforce. "Engagement is really top of mind for all our customers; they're thinking about how to engage employees — in particular, people coming into the workplace who have very high expectations about the power of digital," said Teper.

Companies whose business is about physical things — whether that's making cars, constructing buildings, or selling tents and skis — were also very interested.

"That group you don't have to convince about 3D," Teper notes. "They get it. They've already got 3D models of their things, CAD/CAM drawings and so forth. What we're doing for them is saying, 'you can use your 3D assets to tells stories the way you do with pictures'. People create a PowerPoint presentation or a photo or a video because they want to tell stories about products. Spaces is a way of doing that. Maybe there's the new car that's coming out, and overlaid on the 3D model of the car is information about performance or the specification or financial information. What we do in SharePoint is make it accessible to everyone, from PC users to — increasingly — headsets."

Even for organizations that already have those kind of 3D assets, it's usually hard to create 3D spaces. "In order to do these things, you have to be a Unity developer and write to a gaming engine," Teper notes. "SharePoint isn't going to be a gaming engine; we're going to be the first content management system that supports 3D that a human being can use."

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A SharePoint Space designed to introduce new employees to the company.

Image: Microsoft

Making Spaces

The goal is to make creating a 3D space "as easy as building a web page or a PowerPoint deck," said Vidya Srinivasan, head of SharePoint's mixed reality features, as she walked us through building a Space. "We want to make it easy enough for everyone."

Making a SharePoint Space is very like building any other SharePoint page. You start with an existing SharePoint site, in a browser (we used Chrome on a Mac) and choose a template for the kind of space you want to create — a showroom or an outdoor space, for example. You can create the spatial geometry of how the space is laid out and how far away the user is standing (important for making people feel comfortable in the space), and then add background images, textures and even ambient sound to make it more realistic. It's all done using WebGL and BabylonJS, so companies — or the extensive SharePoint ecosystem — will be able to create custom templates or use the SharePoint Framework to create new capabilities for SharePoint Spaces.

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Editing a SharePoint Space.

Image: Microsoft

When you add content, you do it with the familiar Web Part picker because you're just adding 3D Web Parts (so they can use any SharePoint feature, including the Microsoft Graph). Currently those include 3D objects (which you can make in the Windows 10 Paint 3D app or download from Microsoft's Remix 3D site), 360 or standard video, data visualisations (powered by Power BI), org charts, entire document libraries or specific folders inside them, images or text. That means you can have a 3D model of a piece of machinery and the manual next to it. You can also link 3D spaces together.

Working with 3D, even with these simple tools, can have some pitfalls. One of the 360 videos we tried on a MR headset gave shorter viewers a touch of vertigo because the camera position was higher than their eye line. But even though 3D pie charts are notorious as a way of misrepresenting data, the ability to spin 3D visualisations around and drill into the figures should avoid those problems.

And SharePoint makes a lot of sense as the home for these experiences, which in many ways are the next step from websites. Microsoft has been adding features to make video (hosted in Azure Streams) a first-class data source in SharePoint, and 3D and VR is the next logical topic. When we asked what these new data types say about what SharePoint is for these days, Jeff Teper suggested it's the same thing it's always been — content: "We're the universal content collaboration solution, for all types of content and in all types of context."

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About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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