- Facebook on Thursday announced Horizon Workrooms, a new way for office workers to connect using virtual reality.
- Facebook spent about 2.5 years creating a way for up to 16 people to sit, as digital avatars of their real selves, around a conference table together.
- Facebook says this isn't the metaverse, which is a digital world where people may one day all meet to work and play, but that it's a step toward it.
Facebook on Thursday announced Horizon Workrooms, a new way for office workers to connect using virtual reality.
The idea is simple enough: Instead of talking to people in little boxes over video calls, Facebook spent more than two years creating a way for up to 16 people, represented by avatars, to sit around a virtual conference table together. It supports up to 50 people if some just call in using webcams.
Facebook says this is one small but important step toward building the metaverse -- a digital world where people could someday meet to work and play, seen in works of fiction like "Ready Player One" or "Snow Crash." Facebook has been making a lot of noise about the metaverse lately: In July, it created an exec team to work on the metaverse, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said it will make money from it by selling digital goods. While Horizon Workrooms is free now, it's easy to imagine it becoming a paid service for companies or schools.
I tried Horizon Workrooms in a demonstration with the head of Facebook's Reality Labs, Andrew Bosworth, and other executives. It felt like a unique middle ground between video calls and sitting in a real conference room, and while Facebook doesn't have a real strategy to bring this beta to market just yet, it worked well.
To start, I installed a Workrooms app on my PC (you can also use a Mac) and installed another version of it on Facebook's $299 Oculus Quest 2 headset. I opened Workrooms in the headset, created an avatar complete with my parted blonde hair, blue eyes, and a shirt and tie, then entered into a chat that had been created for our briefing.
I was suddenly sitting at a conference table with other members of the media and several Facebook employees. It was like I'd just commuted into the city and walked into an office building, except instead of real people I saw cartoon versions of everyone else.
Unlike many VR experiences where avatars sort of bounce around without any motion, Facebook's Workrooms takes advantage of hand and head movement. So you can see someone's hand motions while they talk, for example, which made it feel more like I was in a conference room than in a sea of lifeless bodies. Workrooms connects right to your computer, too, so I was able to see my Windows desktop floating right in front of me to take notes. A pass-through feature allowed me to see my keyboard and mouse on my desk, even with the headset on.
Then, I sat as Facebook's Director of FRL Work Experiences, Mike LeBeau, demonstrated how someone might present in the room, whether through drawing on a digital board or sharing their screen for everyone to see. It reminded me a lot of sitting in a small college lecture class.
It definitely felt more like I was in a room with other people, as opposed to being in a video call. This is important, especially if you have workers (or kids) who might turn off their cameras and tune out during a video call for work or school. I think it would be hard or impossible to sneak out of this without anyone noticing. Anytime you move, your avatar moves, for example.
"We've believed this is an important part of the future of work for a long time," Andrew 'Boz' Bosworth, VP of Facebook Reality Labs said during our meeting. "People should be able to have the sense of presence far apart from each other, not just for games and entertainment but for more serious things. We've managed to collaborate well as information workers during the pandemic… this is different. It doesn't feel the same, it doesn't look the same. You can't do it with video calling."
Bosworth is right, it feels a lot different than video calling. But I'm not sure it was better. The experience was cool, but I don't want to spend more time in a conference room than I have to.
In some ways, I prefer a video chat, where I can just turn off my camera, or even better, a phone call, which I've grown to prefer after pandemic-driven video call fatigue. I felt sort of silly knowing I was sitting in my office typing with a heavy, and increasingly sweaty, headset on my face. I kept having to pull it up every few minutes since it sometimes slid down to an uncomfortable position. And even though I knew nobody else could actually see me, I felt weirdly self-conscious, as if I really were sitting in a room with them. At one moment my wife walked into my office, tapped my shoulder, laughed at me and asked what the heck I was doing. "I'm in a meeting with Facebook right now," I said.
That's a struggle Facebook might face if it ever plans to market this to businesses. It would need to convince companies they should shell out $299 for every employee to wear a headset, work with IT departments to get the right apps installed on every computer, and convince managers that this really is a better way to meet than just video chat.
But Facebook isn't worried about all that right now. The product launched on Thursday is still a beta -- although a seemingly very polished one -- and was really just made to show people that experiences like this can be done in VR. The company hopes early adopters play around with it, like what they see, and possibly convince others that this works well.
Whenever the real metaverse launches, I hope to one day play games with friends from around the world in it. But just like the real world, I might have to go to work there, too.