microsoft teams change
Image: Luca Lorenzelli/Adobe Stock

It’s easy to think of Microsoft Teams as just a chat and meeting application where apps and folders frequently worked with can be pinned for discussion or clarification purposes. But, Teams is really a platform for collaborative applications, and talking and sending messages between users is just one form of collaboration, even with bots and Loop components putting information from applications right into the chat.

The new Live Share support coming to Teams will make it easier to build different kinds of collaborative apps, beyond video meetings and chat channels. These Fluid Framework-powered tools let people do actual work together as well as talk about what they should do.

For example, teams can watch videos together; the presenter can start a video, but anyone can add a video to the queue or pause, rewind or jump to what they think is relevant without disrupting others. To make it more interactive, users can also sketch ideas and circle important things in the video they think everyone should pay attention to.

video playback in Teams using Live Share
Image: Microsoft. Shared video playback in Teams using Live Share.

Other uses could involve collaborative editing in a document or diagram or creating together in almost any other kind of software.

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What is Live Share?

Live Share is an open-source extension to the Teams SDK (software development kit) that developers can use to make their apps collaborative and multi-user without having to write extra code to handle the back end, as that’s all taken care of by the Fluid Framework and Azure Fluid Relay. This leaves them free to concentrate on creating a user interface that lets people work together.

Because collaborating on a design or document is very interactive, Live Share adds some new options to Teams, like synchronizing audio and video files, audio ducking that reduces the volume on the audio from one person if someone else starts talking and a virtual laser pointer, so people can show each other the exact part of an object or design they want to talk about or work on.

How the Fluid Framework empowers Live Share

The Fluid Framework that powers Loop components is open source, so developers can use it with their own apps, breaking up the data into chunks that can be viewed and updated through Fluid. That chunk could be an address, a comment or the measurements for an object in a CAD diagram—anything that’s a discrete piece of information you can’t normally access without opening the original app. Fluid can then turn that into a distributed data structure which can be updated in multiple places.

As usual, Microsoft has a confusing number of names for this technology: Fluid is what the framework is called, and it’s the same name Azure for the Fluid Relay Service, which apps can use as a back end if they don’t want to keep the data in SharePoint. The Fluid-based data objects in Office are called Loop components, and apps like ServiceDesk Plus Cloud are turning Adaptive Cards into Loop components, so users will be able to view or update a ticket from inside Teams.

A design team use case for Live Share

Hexagon is a global leader in information technology that creates cars, airplanes, medical devices and other complex designs. But, they struggle with the complexity because they’re working in silos caused by distributed working conditions that make it hard to share expertise.

“Manufacturing really is a complex thing: You start with an idea, then you start to design it, and you test in simulation, then you model the process, then you manufacture it, and then you measure the quality,” said Arno Zinke, senior vice president at Hexagon.

When a finished part doesn’t perform the way it should, experts in measuring and quality assurance need to work with the simulation team and the other engineers to look back at the data from simulation, the quality inspection data and all the other stages of the process to see if there’s a design issue that’s causing the part to be deformed during manufacturing.

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To do that, they need to be able to view the data in different ways. One expert might need a 3D view, another might prefer 2D or tabular data. Even in the same representation, they might need to use different camera angles, use different color coding to represent the different physical properties they’re tracking, or zoom in to a single part or zoom out to show the whole design to see what matters to them.

Communication tools like Teams can bring people together, but sharing a screen while using a computer-aided design (CAD) application, for example, can result in limitations like lag and the ability for only one person to control the application at once.

“That’s not efficient,” said Zinke. “Every change propagates through an orchestrated process, but in the end, the outcomes are really disconnected across the different stages, so people will maybe make a decision without [seeing] all the inputs.”

Thus, Hexagon turned to Live Share to solve the issues caused by collaborating across a distributed workforce.

Live Share opens up collaboration between experts from different teams

In a Live Share collaborative app, multiple people can interact with the application at the same time to look at what’s relevant to them, so experts in different areas can work together on a design to solve a problem.

This enabled Hexagon to build a collaborative app with Live Share, which was briefly demoed at Microsoft’s Build conference, to make the design process more collaborative for 3D designers who use models and simulations.

“What we tried to do with that app is to bring together domain experts from all the different domains necessary to solve a problem like building an aeroplane or a car … in one environment,” said Zinke. “For the first time, those processes and workflows become much more agile.”

a demonstration editing a model using Live Share
Image: Hexagon. With Live Share you can see what everyone in the meeting is working on in the shared workspace.

The airplane engine shown in the demo is an assembly of parts where one of the parts is out of tolerance, a problem that usually stems from decisions made in the early stage of the process, Zinke explained.

Using Live Share, experts were able to come together to view and troubleshoot the design. Live Share goes beyond just viewing to editing; the engineers can change the part, have the design recomputed and simulated, and see if that solves the problem, all at the same time from the same application.

users editing a model together in Live Share
Image: Hexagon. What you see in Live Share is live data everyone can edit together rather than just someone sharing their screen.

Live Share will bring long-term changes to design practices

In the longer term, being able to work together like this could solve another big problem for industrial design that slows down the design process. Typically, designs move between different software tools (it’s common to have as many as 10 or 20 to cover all the stages, Zinke noted), and data exchange is slow because the files are very large.

“They use the first tool to produce a massive file that’s thrown over the fence, and the next poor user pulls out just the bits that have changed and makes their own file,” said Zinke.

That happens for each tool, making it painful to update when the original file gets changed again, with the risk of error from manually copying information between files.

By making the data more granular and open, so it can be shared between the tools, the system architecture will be more efficient because users won’t be working with multi-gigabyte tools, and changes will be faster and easier, encouraging designers and engineers to make changes more frequently and experiment with different approaches.

editors making changes at the same time in Live Share
Image: Hexagon. Different experts can make changes to the shared model and everyone sees the results inside the meeting.

“Our customers are tired of this hodgepodge of stuff with completely inconsistent experiences and manual file sharing,” Zinke said. He calls Live Share “a fabric for enabling next-level, collaborative workflows that brings experts together and enables collaboration across tools, teams and disciplines—and I think that’s going to transform how we make things.”

There’s a lot of excitement about the idea of the metaverse. Zinke suggests that Live Share will be a stepping stone towards making that useful for industry.

“It’s a virtual place that’s about bringing people together and tools together into one environment, and that makes it possible to solve challenging problems together,” said Zinke.

Teams improves communication for collaborative work

The move to hybrid and remote work makes collaborative applications much more important than when you could walk over to a colleague’s desk and sit down and point at things on their screen. Knowledge workers have had the ability to collaborate in Office and Google Docs for a long time, and coders have used git. But more recently, Visual Studio has added collaborative editing and debugging in the form of Live Share.

With Live Share in Teams, a lot more applications will be able to be built in live collaboration relatively simply because what the developers have to create is the business logic around who can do what, rather than the complex distributed data management the Fluid back end handles for them.

Working with Live Share is easy for developers because, according to Zinke, users can drop it in to existing apps.

“You bring Teams to your app; you don’t have to bring your app into Teams,” said Zinke. “It’s a really loose coupling. We’re not building something just for Teams.”

Around 90–95% of Hexagon’s customers are already using Teams, Zinke mentioned. That said, Hexagon doesn’t want to host its own collaboration infrastructure, and customers don’t want a separate collaboration solution built into their design software.

“Why would you compete with a very successful product in the marketplace that all your customers use? We can meet them where they are.”

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