Mark Zuckerberg made an appearance at the recent press briefing I went to in virtual reality to talk about the metaverse, and it wasn’t long after the event began.
As the Facebook CEO was being beamed in, a handful of other reporters and I were seated at a large, U-shaped conference table. Our floating torsos were bobbing over our chairs as we listened to him speak. A massive monitor that was hovering nearby showed that other Facebook employees had phoned in from the real world in order to view us through their computer displays. After donning a headset and teleporting into a chair at the table as his own legless avatar, Zuckerberg made his initial appearance at that location through the webcam that was attached to his computer.
Horizon Workrooms is the name of the new application that we were there to sample for the Oculus Quest. Facebook is calling it a “open beta,” and our purpose in being there was to check it out. It is the first attempt made by the social network to create a virtual reality (VR) experience designed exclusively for people to collaborate in. After spending more than an hour inside Workrooms, I can see its promise as a more realistic way to connect with people who are physically apart, but I don’t see it taking on beyond the most dedicated devotees of virtual reality any time soon. Having said that, I believe that in the years to come, this experience will become more appealing for users who are less dedicated to virtual reality, and possibly even for individuals who have never tried VR before.
Workrooms are an incremental improvement to Facebook’s virtual reality (VR) efforts, but they also fit into Facebook’s larger goals to own the next computer platform and develop the so-called metaverse. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg went so far as to remark that he wants Facebook to be primarily thought of as a metaverse firm. The metaverse is a notion from science fiction that predicts that one day we will all spend substantial amounts of our time in a fully immersive digital realm. Or as Zuckerberg puts it, a “embodied internet.”
The manner in which Workrooms integrates elements of the real world into virtual reality is the aspect of the app that most impressed me. One Workroom can accommodate up to 16 users simultaneously immersed in virtual reality, and an additional 34 users can participate in the space through video conference even if they do not have a VR headset. You can project a live stream of whatever is on your computer screen into your virtual table space using a companion desktop application. A virtual image of your physical keyboard lies underneath your screen, courtesy to the hand-tracking and front-facing cameras found on the Quest. This allows you to type into a rudimentary web app that Facebook developed for keeping track of calendars and taking notes.
“I believe that it might be the most taxing VR application that’s currently available.”
Vice President of Facebook Reality Labs, Andrew “Boz” Bosworth
During the briefing, which was the first of its kind that I’ve experienced entirely in VR, Facebook’s top AR/VR executive, Andrew Bosworth, told us, “I think it might be the most intense VR application that exists, in terms of how much we’re trying to put every bell and whistle from the headset into the experience you’re using.” “I think it might be the most intense VR application that exists in terms of how much we’re trying to put every bell and whistle from the headset into the experience
For the time being, the procedure required to initially enter Workrooms is fairly cumbersome. It requires, interestingly enough, that you create a separate Workrooms account via the web, download Workrooms in Oculus, and then couple your headset to your Workrooms account by typing a code displayed on the headset into the web browser on your PC.
Some of the elements found in Workrooms, such as a personal sketching pad and a huge whiteboard that anyone can go up to and use, give the impression of being more gimmicky than practical. There were many instances in which the audio abruptly stopped or became garbled, and there are still some issues with the way the Quest tracks your hands. At one point, Zuckerberg was had to exit the room and then come back in because the mouth of his avatar, which he was using to communicate, did not move at all when he talked. I was unable to test the desktop companion app on my 2020 MacBook Air because it is not yet compatible with Apple’s M1 CPU. (I was informed by a Facebook representative that support is on the way for Apple M1 machines.)
Even though there were some issues in the Quest and the images were not as detailed as what I saw on the screen of my MacBook, I still had a stronger sense of presence in the Workrooms than I do when I use a more traditional video conferencing service such as Zoom. The native arm and hand tracking definitely came in handy, all the way down to tracking the movements of each individual finger. The Quest’s use of spatial audio is a more significant factor. It appeared as though the person speaking was coming from the direction in which they were standing when they were in another part of the room. Because of a change in the seating arrangement at one point, I had the impression that someone was actually talking to me from behind my back while I was experiencing virtual reality.
“A significantly more robust method of interaction than the social applications that can be built on mobile devices or personal computers,”
According to Zuckerberg, Facebook has been utilising Workrooms internally for the purpose of holding meetings for approximately six months. “These kinds of experiences, where you can actually feel present with other people, are I think a much richer way to interact than the types of social apps we’ve been able to build on phones or computers,” he said. “These kinds of experiences are a much richer way to interact than the types of social apps we’ve been able to build on phones or computers.”
Mark Zuckerberg during a meeting in Horizon
Zuckerberg is absolutely correct in his assessment that virtual reality provides a more immersive experience than a phone or computer screen. But Workrooms and the technology that enables it have a ways to go before they are compelling enough to replace the methods that people currently work together and hang out at scale. This includes both the software and the hardware. The rate at which the hardware and software for Facebook’s Oculus have been improving gives me reason to believe that within the next couple of years, experiences such as Workrooms will be significantly more accessible and appealing than they are right now. The growing number of companies entering this market, such as Apple, is anticipated to hasten the acceleration of customer interest in this category of headsets.
Workrooms is a component of Horizon, a larger overarching project that Facebook is developing for the Oculus platform. Horizon is a virtual reality platform that was initially demoed a couple of years ago with the goal of becoming essentially the whole Facebook universe, or a metaverse, if you will. Workrooms will be a component of it, and Facebook has shown off games and tools for creating worlds in the past that are comparable to those seen in Roblox or Minecraft.
Even though it was initially stated that Horizon would launch in 2020, the experience is still in invite-only beta, and Facebook’s Bosworth declined to provide me with a specific timetable for when this restriction will be lifted. According to him, the company has been concentrating on developing additional tools for the creators so that the creators can, in turn, develop stuff in Horizon for other people.
This suggests that Facebook intends for Horizon to serve as a platform over which other software developers can build. Workrooms provides the clearest view so far into what Facebook means when it says it is “creating the metaverse.” This will remain true until Horizon is released.