Microsoft Promising To Bring Mixed Reality and AI to SharePoint Online

Microsoft on Monday described its SharePoint vision, new features and coming attractions, kicking off this week's SharePoint North America event.

The nearly two-hour keynote talk featured Jeff Teper, corporate vice president for OneDrive, SharePoint and Office, along with talks and demos by other SharePoint luminaries. As usual with the big SharePoint events, Microsoft doled out lots of details. This article just focuses on the broad strokes.

The general themes of the talk were about the increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) in SharePoint, as well as mixed reality, including a new "Shared Spaces" three-dimensional capability for sites. Mobile SharePoint was also a theme. Teper, though, said he wanted to frame SharePoint's progress more in terms of vision and value, rather than technology. He described six SharePoint "pillars," namely sharing and working together, informing and engaging people, harnessing collective knowledge, transforming business processes, extending and developing, and protecting and managing.

Most of the new innovations mentioned during the talk will be coming to the SharePoint Online product side, as offered via Office 365 subscriptions. However, a few tidbits were described regarding the emerging SharePoint Server 2019 product.

SharePoint Spaces
The headline-grabbing announcement at the event likely was SharePoint Spaces, a new SharePoint Online capability by which Microsoft is promising to bring mixed reality experiences to end users. During the talk, the ability to quickly build a three-dimensional SharePoint site was demonstrated -- in this case, a product catalog page. The demo was conducted by Vidya Srinivasan, product lead for SharePoint Spaces, who said that it took three minutes to create the page.

SharePoint Spaces are created using templates, which are extensible. It's possible to customize the site using WebGL and BabylonJS. Users can add color, images, ambient sound and Web Parts, and they can tap the Microsoft Graph. It's possible to link multiple SharePoint Spaces pages together through Object Properties.

The demo of SharePoint Spaces was conducted through a mixed reality headset. However, Teper said that SharePoint Spaces is for everybody, adding that "we know not everyone has a headset, so we'll create amazing experiences on screens."

SharePoint and AI
Teper noted at the end of the talk that Microsoft is innovating faster than ever with its work on AI in SharePoint and with SharePoint Spaces. However, the role of AI wasn't really nailed down so much during the talk. Instead, Teper was more explicit about AI's role in this announcement (note: link may fail in some Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox browsers).

AI gets enabled when files, images and data are stored in Office 365, he indicated. Microsoft will be adding a Find tab in the SharePoint Mobile App that will show links to "documents and sites you were recently working on." It'll show results "based on your role, your work and the people you work with." These aspects likely are just Microsoft Graph-surfaced information, which apparently accounts for its search and AI aspects. Microsoft recently defined the Microsoft Graph as "a cloud-backed data store" where AI can "reason against that data."

During the keynote talk, Naomi Moneypenny, senior product manager at Microsoft, described the SharePoint Mobile App's search capabilities as popping up answers through machine intelligence. The search experience will be consistent across, Bing, Windows and Office apps, she indicated.

Microsoft is promising that AI will work with stored SharePoint Online photos, a capability that's currently available. It'll determine "where photos were taken, recognize objects and extract text in photos," and it'll be easier to search for images. Microsoft will be adding a new Scan button in the next few months to the OneDrive Mobile App to capture images, such as scanning receipts, printed documents and whiteboards, and it can be configured to upload images to Office 365 automatically. This capability sounds much like the Office Lens capability added to OneDrive, although it wasn't identified as such.

Microsoft also suggested that AI can be used with "cognitive services, data management and analytics" in SharePoint Online. Those details were mostly outlined in this announcement by Chris McNulty, a senior product marketing manager for SharePoint and Office 365 at Microsoft, who also presented on the topic during the talk.

Microsoft has a "cognitive services engine" that's connected to Microsoft Flow, which is Microsoft's workflow automation service. The cognitive services engine can analyze text for "sentiment, key phrases, translation and moderation," McNulty noted. Images also get scanned for geolocation and extractable text, which become metadata tags. These image tags can be processed in a Microsoft Flow, a capability that will be available "later in 2018," although Cognitive Services for images is available now.

SharePoint Server 2019
SharePoint Server 2019 is expected to arrive as a preview this summer, with general availability planned for the second half of this year.

At some point during the talk, Teper assured the conference attendees that while 70 percent of Microsoft's SharePoint customers are using the cloud version of the product, "we are committed to the on-premises space." It was an important assurance, since Microsoft's verbal commitments to continue the SharePoint Server product had been somewhat murky a few years back.

Seth Patton, general manager of Office 365 product marketing, added similar statistical color, saying that Microsoft has more than 400,000 organizations using SharePoint Online with 200 percent growth, and that 70 percent of the seats are online, "and if feels like we're just beginning."

Microsoft can't always bring its SharePoint Online capabilities to SharePoint Server for use in a customer's datacenters ("on premises") because they depend on using Office 365 services from Microsoft's datacenters. However, some of its so-called "modern" capabilities will be available for use with the coming SharePoint Server 2019 product. Those capabilities were listed in an announcement by Bill Baer, a senior product marketing manager for SharePoint.

Baer indicated that Microsoft has investments in bringing "Communication Sites, Team News and modern Team Sites to include Lists and Libraries," along with next-generation OneDrive mobile sync client support, to SharePoint Server 2019. In addition, Microsoft is working on adding support for "process automation and forms technologies, such as Microsoft PowerApps and Flow, to connect your on-premises data with [SharePoint Server] 2019."

One element that went unmentioned in Baer's announcement and in the SharePoint talk was Hub Sites, which are used in SharePoint Online to organize Communication Sites and Team Sites. Last year, a couple of Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals predicted that the Hub Sites feature would not make it to the SharePoint Server 2019 product. It seems they have been proved correct.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.


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