Inside Facebook’s metaverse for work

Facebook

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.

Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Facebook Reality Labs VP

“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.

Mark Zuckerberg during a meeting in Horizon

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.

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Comments

Happy to see that the metaverse is based on the mii game engine. It will not be expensive to join in

It’s weird how my quest 1 works great in vr, using essentially a Samsung galaxy 8’s processor, but my gaming PC struggles with VR. My GPU is the size of 3 phones and has 3 fans

Probably because the Quest apps are just small stripped down mobile VR experiences. Trying running Half Life Alyx on your Quest.

Seemless transition when switching to playing golf and tennis during meeting breaks.

Now that Facebook has managed to corner the mainstream VR market with its excellent Quest 2, I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook manages to also become the core of the mixed reality future & I don’t know how I feel about it.

I know how to feel about that. Feels bad, man. Feels bad.

All businesses need to immediately buy VR headsets for all employees so their Zoom meetings can feel like a video game from 20 years ago.

I think I’d prefer AR

If your real space isn’t big enough to fit a roundtable, those AR people are going to be floating beyond your physical space, and it’ll just look weird, or even cause eyestrain/confusion.

I know a lot of people will laugh at this and dismiss it as impractical, but this is how it starts. I see this a least a decade out for business uses, but VR can bring people together in unique ways. I will often jump into Walkabout Mini Golf just to have a chill place to hang out with my long distance siblings, even if we don’t actually end up playing a round of golf.

Even for more mass adoption this is less than a decade out. I would expect less than five years tops. My team has been using VR in place of Zoom for the last 8 months and its been great. We still do calls for less involved discussions or if someone forgot to charge their headset or if we’re just not feeling it. A lot of those calls have switched to Slack Huddles lately.

We’ve evaluated pretty much every VR meeting/co-working space app available on the Quest as well as rolling our own for internal needs that aren’t met by those apps. My current favorite is Spatial, though my boss’s preferred space to hold a meeting is Walkabout Mini Golf.

We were close to making the business case for a wider rollout to the whole company as the execs where excited by the prospect that it could return the feel of working in the office to WFH. Then things started to open up again so that fizzled a bit, they’re still intrigued by it and love seeing footage we record of us using it and with everyone still WFH it may gain steam again.

Oh boy, a way to make VR ultimately boring and hated. I mean, this might make meetings more interesting in the short term but if someone has no idea how to run an effective meeting before VR, this won’t change anything one bit except to make people long to play a video game while in a meeting.

Can I choose to have hair in this Third Life?

It’s neat and cute but this is ultimately going to fail. The barrier of entry is just too high for something that has "zoom but with animated avatars" as a fallback.

I feel like this is very softball on what we’re talking about here. There is no discussion in this article about meetings themselves to give this technology any context.

The kind of companies that would use this probably have too many unnecessary meeting as-is. So by having to strap a screen to your face in order to join the meeting means that everyone has to pay attention and not multi-task or tune out the meeting that they probably don’t have to be in.

Of course, managers and owners love the idea of forcing all the people invited to have to pay attention. Isn’t this just corporate A Clockwork Orange?

Sure, putting on VR is more "immersive" than being on Zoom. But is that a good thing? Can you truly take notes and reference other materials as easily through this as you would with a normal conference call? Are you actually LESS productive through a VR headset than through meatspace? Obviously yes?

So it seems to me this is more about controlling workers than anything else.

This is definitely way less efficient than meatspace meetings, but I don’t think it’s meant to replace those. This is primarily meant for remote work in a post-covid world.

It’s still less productive than a normal Zoom/Teams meeting, which is what i meant. Can I see all my monitors through my VR headset?
Can i use my keyboard and mouse still? sounds like no, i have touse a virtual keyboard and mouse for some reason.

Dumb stuff like that.

The productivity depends more on the type of meeting you’re having and also what software you’re using for it. Most of them have a screen share element so you can share you’re desktop in the space. Some can open a web browser within the space. Spatial can do all of that.

Immersed is one that is designed as more of a co-working space. In that one you are viewing your desktop on virtual monitors and can work right on it. If you’re decent at touch typing its no problem. That one was interesting, but I abandoned using it once my trial was up as the free version limits you to only the public rooms. For coding with the headset on I use either AirLink or Virtual Desktop. Some, like Virtual Desktop and Immersed, let you define where your physical keyboard is so you can have an easier time reaching for it in the VR world.

I do see the KB830 there in the screenshots of Workroom, so looks like they’re definitely going to support that keyboard in it.

The real plus to this is that in an office where conference rooms were a hot commodity we can now have a virtual one available to us at all times. We can leave notes up on the wall while brainstorming. We don’t have to take a picture of the whiteboard and erase it when we leave the room so someone else can use it. Its persistent and always available to us.

The whole point of this is that it does allow you to use your real keyboard and mouse. If you have one of the keyboards it knows about, it’ll track its physical position and show you it in VR. Alternatively, there’s a pass through mode where you can see your keyboard as seen by the cameras on the headset. It then has remote desktop software to show your PC screen.
It’s early days for this sort of thing, but it does look usable.

This is absolutely one of the most cursed things I’ve ever seen, why would they not give your guy legs and then design a table that lets you see their disembodied torso floating above the floor?!?!

Because it looks even weirder when the legs are not animated or in weird positions.
I play plenty of VR games, and when you are using it, it is really not that weird

Because beeing in VR it rarely matters. Its the screenshots and videos that make it look awkward.

how did they not give the desk a front?? it feels so weird to stare at the legless chairs under people!

Zuckerberg’s avatar looks just like him: emotionless and robot-like.

It was an avatar?

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