Microsoft becomes the first major tech company to hold a VR keynote session

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Virtual Reality is still a relatively nascent technology but it’s improving and being adopted faster than ever.

 

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Microsoft recently became the first major tech company to host a keynote presentation fully in Virtual Reality (VR). Despite many moving parts, the company managed to delivery a seamless, immersive presentation that could mark the future of this sort of marketing communication.

 

 

In the last 20 years, the ‘tech keynote’ has gone from hasty PowerPoint presentations in front of small groups to major multimedia productions that form the cornerstone of many marketing playbooks, often concluding with major announcements and product reveals.

Last week, Microsoft took the next step toward one possible future of the tech keynote when it delivered the opening presentation to its Ignite 2021 developer conference fully in virtual reality.

While far from the first company to deliver a virtual reality presentation, Microsoft, with its $1.73 trillion market cap, is surely the largest company to do so. And its presentation was perhaps the most ambitious and most polished I’ve yet seen, featuring custom built scenes that stitched together immersive and traditional media alike. Adding to the complexity of execution is the fact that the keynote was designed for viewing both in VR and via a non-immersive livestream for a wider audience.

 

 

If you want to see the entire thing you can watch a recording here, and below I’ll overview how it all went down from the in-VR perspective.

Microsoft hosted the entire Ignite keynote inside of Altspace, the social VR platform the company acquired back in 2017. Because it’s Microsoft’s own product, the company had the leeway for a much more unique production than would have been possible in an off-the-shelf solution.

 

Watch the keynote in full

 

Anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to Altspace was able to join the presentation and get a front-row seat to the keynote. The setup was as you might expect: a seating section for the audience and a stage to frame the action. And while hundreds of users attended the event in virtual reality, they were divided up into many instances of roughly 25 audience members. So while the audience was split between many rooms, they were all watching the exact same presentation unfold at the same time.

To be clear, the Microsoft Ignite 2021 virtual reality keynote was not just a little experiment for the company. This was a large enough event expected to be viewed by enough people to warrant Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as the headline speaker, who outlined the company’s vision for the future of enterprise computing.

 

 

And while they didn’t go so far as bringing Nadella himself into VR, with his video segment being played on a large movie-theater-like screen, it was Nadella which was the first to announce Microsoft Mesh, which the company hopes will drive immersive computing and collaboration, bringing about a future where virtual reality events – like the Ignite 2021 keynote – are commonplace.

While the virtual reality audience of the keynote was all represented by cartoon-ish Altspace avatars, HoloLens visionary Alex Kipman was shown on stage in a life-like representation wearing a HoloLens 2 headset. Around him was a stage designed to look like a coral reef, with the surrounding scenery transformed to make it look like the entire stage was underwater.

From a technical standpoint, it appears that Kipman’s visual representation was achieved with a green-screen video capture which was shown to the audience as a ‘billboard’ texture that rotated to face each viewer no matter their position.

Up close, this technique would have looked very fake in VR, but they smartly kept Kipman just far enough away from the audience that the flatness of his being wasn’t really noticeable. Doing it this way also meant the capture could be done with commodity hardware and software, while also retaining a high level of visual fidelity and capturing all elements of Kipman’s real-life mannerisms.

 

 

While Kipman was speaking, the area above and around him slowly filled with schools of fish and even a huge whale-shark which glided above him smoothly as he was making his presentation. At a certain point the audience saw a pop-up allowing them select a fish which would swim toward the stage and join the other schools of fish in their rounds. This was the first interactive element of the VR keynote, but more interesting interaction was yet to come – more on that further below.

As Kipman spoke, a large screen behind him underscored his points with both pictures and video imagery, and occasionally he would fade out to give center stage to a video portion of the presentation.

After Kipman finished some of the opening announcements, the stage transformed from a relatively enclosed room to a large, cartoony outdoor space. This set the stage for him to invite John Hanke, the CEO of Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, to join him.

Hanke joined the stage as an Altspace avatar, which was an interesting juxtaposition to Kipman’s real-life avatar. Because of the many technologies which can be used to represent people in VR, this sort of mixing of avatar fidelity is likely to be part and parcel of VR’s future.

Kipman and Hanke spoke of the future of social XR experiences, and how Microsoft Mesh could facilitate that future. After a brief back-and-forth, the two faded from the stage as a screen popped up to play a recorded video segment of Hanke showing off a prototype socially-enabled version of Pokémon Go running on HoloLens 2.

 

 

Funny enough, in the video segment, Hanke was his real-life self while Kipman was the one represented as a remote avatar.

Following a windup by Kipman, oceanographers Edie Widder and Vincent Pieribone then appeared on stage as life-like representations of themselves as the stage transformed into a dark, deep sea appearance. The duo recounted some of their most memorable experiences of oceanographic discovery, with immersive visuals – like bioluminescent fish and a giant squid – floating around them to underscore their talking points.

The segment was capped off with Widder and Pieribone talking about how advancements in technology, especially 3D data visualization, make for richer and more intuitive ways for scientists to plumb the ocean depths.

Then, finally, celebrated filmmaker James Cameron joined Kipman on stage as a guest to talk about some of the latest work he’s been doing with submersibles and the way he and oceanographers are using immersive media to collaborate on scientific ventures remotely.

“Beaming in” from New Zealand, Cameron’s appearance on stage seemed to use the same video billboard trick as Kipman, and the two were facing each other for the conversation. As they spoke, a life-sized 3D model of a futuristic-looking remote submersible floated down from above the stage and positioned itself between the pair, bobbing gently in place as a prop relating to the conversation.

 

 

Capping off the Ignite 2021 virtual reality keynote was the most interactive and, well… trippy part of the whole experience.

Kipman invited to the stage Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, who first appeared as a frog that leapt out of a portal onto the stage and then transformed into an Altspace avatar version of himself.

Laliberté was there to talk about his project Hanai World, a social XR platform that aims to bring immersive components to traditionally in-person entertainment, like stage productions. After a few minutes of conversation, Kipman and Laliberté invited the audience to join them for a taste of Hanai World.

At this point, the audience was sucked into the portal and taken along a trippy wormhole of imagery before appearing on a small island surrounded by dancers. At this point, the audience had been dispersed around the island, and there was no longer any clear separation between the presenters and the audience.

 

 

Kipman and Laliberté were at the center of the island around a small fire, this time appearing as 3D volumetric captures of themselves alongside two others represented the same way. The audience meanwhile remained as their Altspace avatars.

The audience was encouraged to dance along to some singing and music as a large dome encompassed the entirety of the island with psychedelic projections of giant people projected onto it.

The keynote concluded after a few minutes of the Hanai World experience, after which it was back to reality for the audience …

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