It wasn’t long into a recent press briefing I attended in virtual reality when Mark Zuckerberg showed up to talk about the metaverse.
I was sitting at a long, U-shaped conference table with a handful of other reporters, our floating torsos bobbing over our chairs, as the Facebook CEO beamed in. A giant, floating display nearby showed other Facebook employees dialed in from the non-VR world to watch us through their computer screens. It was there that Zuckerberg first appeared through his webcam before donning a headset and teleporting into a chair at the table as his own legless avatar.
We were there to preview a new app, which Facebook is describing as an “open beta,” for the Oculus Quest called Horizon Workrooms. It’s the social network’s first stab at creating a VR experience specifically for people to work together in. After spending over an hour in Workrooms, I can see its potential as a more immersive way to communicate with people who are physically apart, but I don’t see it catching on beyond the most diehard VR enthusiasts anytime soon. That said, I can see this experience become compelling for more casual users, and potentially those who are totally new to VR, in the years ahead.
While an incremental update to Facebook’s VR efforts in its own right, Workrooms fits into the social network’s broader ambitions to own the next computing platform and build the so-called metaverse. Zuckerberg went so far as to recently say he wants Facebook to be primarily thought of as a metaverse company—a sci-fi concept that says we will all one day spend significant chunks of time in a fully immersive, digital space. Or as Zuckerberg puts it, an “embodied internet.”
What impressed me the most about Workrooms is the way that it brings parts of the outside world into VR. Up to 16 people in VR can be in a Workroom together, while an additional 34 people can join over video call without wearing a headset. A companion desktop app lets you beam a live feed of your computer screen over your virtual table space. Thanks to the Quest’s hand-tracking and front-facing cameras, a virtual representation of your physical keyboard sits underneath your screen for typing into a barebones web app Facebook built for note taking and managing calendars.
“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,” Facebook’s top AR/VR executive, Andrew Bosworth, told us during the briefing, which was the first of its kind I’ve experienced entirely in VR.
For now, the process of getting into Workrooms initially is quite clunky. It oddly requires creating a separate Workrooms account through the web, downloading Workrooms in Oculus, and then pairing your headset to your Workrooms account by entering a code shown in the headset on your computer’s web browser.
Some features in Workrooms, like a personal drawing pad and giant whiteboard that anyone can go up to and use, feel more gimmicky than useful. There were multiple times when the audio cut out or became garbled, and the Quest’s hand tracking isn’t perfect. At one point Zuckerberg had to leave and rejoin the room because his avatar’s mouth wasn’t moving at all when he spoke. The desktop companion app isn’t yet compatible with Apple’s M1 processor, so I wasn’t able to try it on my 2020 MacBook Air. (A Facebook rep told me support is coming soon for Apple M1 computers.)
Even with the bugs and relatively scaled-back graphics of the Quest compared to my MacBook screen, I still felt more present in Workrooms than I normally do in a traditional video conferencing setup like Zoom. Native arm and hand tracking, down to the movements of individual fingers, certainly helped. A larger factor is the Quest’s spatial audio. When someone talked in one corner of the room, it sounded like their voice was coming from that direction. At one point the seating chart was changed and I felt as if someone sitting behind me in VR was actually speaking from behind my head.
Facebook has been using Workrooms internally for meetings for about six months, according to Zuckerberg. “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.
Zuckerberg is right that VR feels more immersive than a phone or computer screen. But Workrooms — and the hardware that powers it — has a ways to go before it will be compelling enough to replace existing ways people work together and hang out at scale. But at the rate that Facebook’s Oculus hardware and software have been progressing, I expect experiences like Workrooms to be much more accessible and enticing in a couple of years than they are now. Other coming entrants into the space, such as Apple, will likely accelerate consumer interest in these sorts of headsets.
Workrooms is part of a bigger umbrella project Facebook is building for Oculus called Horizon. Originally teased a couple of years ago, Horizon aims to essentially be the full Facebook universe — a metaverse, you could say — for virtual reality. Workrooms will be part of it, and Facebook has in the past demoed games and world-building tools similar to Minecraft or Roblox.
Despite originally saying Horizon would debut in 2020, the experience remains in invite-only beta, and Facebook’s Bosworth declined to give me an exact timeframe for when that would change. He said the company has been focused on building more tools for creators, so they in turn can build things in Horizon for others.
That indicates Facebook wants Horizon to be a platform for other developers to build upon. Until Horizon comes out, Workrooms is the best glimpse yet at what Facebook means when it says it’s building the metaverse.