The company’s new virtual reality app brings Oculus users into the “infinite office.” Cool.
Mark Zuckerberg looks right at me as he explains how this conversation is unlike most work conversations that have happened over the past 18 months. “You’re sitting to my right,” he says. “That means I’m to your left. We have a shared sense of space.” And it’s true. On a Zoom call he’d just be one small square in a matrix, looking blankly at a webcam. But here in Horizon Workrooms, Facebook’s new VR meeting space, it feels as though we’re sitting mere feet apart—especially with Zuckerberg’s new avatar looking remarkably like the real thing, from the caesar cut to the unblinking blue eyes.
There’s one problem, though: His mouth isn’t moving.
I can hear the Facebook CEO’s voice, and I can see his hands moving as he gestures, but the net effect is more like having a Hummel figurine explain its vision of the Metaverse. I’ll put it this way: It’s not not creepy.
It’s also fixed easily enough. Zuckerberg backs out of the conference room, blipping out of sight, and rejoins moments later, virtual mouth fully operational and the Uncanny Valley successfully bridged. “It’s really disconcerting when even one little piece is off,” admits Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, the VP of Facebook Reality Labs, sitting across the room at a long circular table.
Horizon Workrooms, which the company officially announced today, is also officially in beta. That means issues happen. Sometimes, Bosworth says, people come in entirely blue. But aside from the whole mouth thing—a known bug, Bosworth calls it—the platform ran remarkably smoothly during a demonstration earlier this week. While it might not be the first time a company has tried to create a compelling VR version of a meeting (not by a long shot), Workrooms represents Facebook’s first public attempt to enable what Zuckerberg has called the “infinite office.” Turns out the Metaverse might be more like a Meetaverse.
A few months ago, WIRED reported that teams at Facebook Reality Labs were holding weekly meetings in a house-built VR app. That was Horizon Workrooms. Somehow, it didn’t spring out of the pandemic-induced lockdown. At least, not entirely. “Obviously, our enthusiasm has only grown over the last 18 months or so,” Bosworth says. A couple of years ago, the FRL team started poking at the problem of virtual work; while tools like Zoom and Slack have made collaboration across distance possible, Bosworth points out, they don’t necessarily do much for creativity.
That’s where Workrooms comes in. When you first launch the app in your Oculus Quest 2 headset, it prompts you to trace the front edge of your desk with a hand controller, then pair the headset with your computer; setup complete, you find yourself sitting at a virtual desk with the same dimensions as your own, your laptop screen hovering in front of you. Using a MacBook Pro or compatible Logitech keyboard? Those are trackable, which means a virtual simulacrum sits on the desk in front of you; when you reach out to type on it, the Quest’s passthrough camera engages and you see your own IRL hands superimposed over the keys. You can set the hand controllers aside too, as the Quest 2’s hand tracking lets you interact with Workrooms via pinch and swipe. (You’re gonna want to make sure there’s not a full coffee cup around. Trust me.)
If you’re just looking to work somewhere that isn’t your usual environment, that might be enough. But it’s not the primary draw of Workrooms. For that, you’ll need to jump into a meeting, much like the way you would in Zoom or Teams or Meet or … you get the idea. You can host it in your own Workroom, or visit someone else’s. Either way, you’ll find yourself sitting at a massive horseshoe-shaped table or a tiered amphitheater-style setup, depending on whether the host wants to present at a whiteboard or just keep the conversation flowing. You can stand at the whiteboard and draw directly on it using the Quest’s controller—held upside down, like a pen—or you can tap a button and use your desk as a whiteboard; whatever you write (or doodle) appears on the whiteboard in real time.
The avatars that Workrooms uses look markedly better than the previous generation, but they’re also a touch more reserved. Before they were finished, Bosworth says, a coworker would routinely show up to VR meetings with a virtual parrot on his avatar’s shoulder. You can still express yourself, though, as technical product manager Saf Samms points out; her avatar has natural hair (like IRL Samms), but purple eyes and a nose ring (not like IRL Samms). Between that and the spatial audio, she says, Workrooms places a clear emphasis on natural, comfortable collaboration—the kind you can only get from convincing “social presence.”
Mike LeBeau, the director of FRL’s work experiences team, once worked on creating Oculus Venues, Facebook’s first public multiuser VR experience; during the press conference, he showed off the whiteboard capabilities he and his team had built in. Despite his being in London, there was no noticeable latency—though one of the journalists in attendance did mistakenly share their laptop screen up to the board. Workrooms can support up to 16 people and their computers in VR, with up to 34 more on video; the VR attendees see the video participants on suspended flat screens, while the video folks see a room full of avatars. Add the mixed-reality elements, along with that spatial audio and the upgraded avatars, and you’ve got some data to manage.
This being a Facebook app—one that pairs with your actual computer in the interest of you discussing and sharing potentially sensitive information—you’d be rightfully concerned about what happens to that data. The company has implemented a number of policies to that end. Workrooms claims not to use your conversations or “materials” to inform ads on Facebook; it also maintains that any images or videos of your real-world environment are processed locally, and that neither Facebook nor third-party apps can “access, view, or use” them to target ads. As for pairing the headset to your computer, the permissions granted are only for that localized stream of information, and no one else in a Workroom can see your computer screen. At least, I couldn’t see anyone else’s, despite trying. (There’s also a standards and conduct policy you have to agree to before using Workrooms, and a process in place for reporting violations.)
Much has been made, including here at WIRED, about the limitations and pitfalls that come with a single company enacting its own vision of a metaverse. An app like Workrooms isn’t going to quell that hue and cry. But it’s also not the trumpet blast of late-stage capitalism many will make it out to be. “I don’t think that this suggests in any way that we’re going to try to become an enterprise company,” Zuckerberg tells me, “but I do think that work is going to be one of the key use cases that people try to do in the metaverse. There’s hanging out, there’s entertainment, and work is going to be a third major pillar of how this all works.”
Besides, a work tool isn’t simply a work tool, as anyone who’s
gritted their teeth through enjoyed a Zoom birthday party can attest. I may have used Workrooms for professional purposes, but I immediately imagined its tools coming in handy for a book club or a tabletop game meetup, or any other social situations where you just want to sit around with people and do more than simply talk. And when the coffee shop’s closed because of a Covid-19 scare? No need to move your laptop anywhere—just throw on a headset and plug away at that screenplay somewhere else for a while.
Foto: Horizon Workrooms, which Facebook officially announced today, allows users to share their laptop screens in virtual reality meetings. Courtesy of Facebook