Facebook announced Horizon Workrooms on Thursday, free software for users of its Oculus Quest 2 headset, which starts at $299. The app is the company’s most ambitious endeavor yet to allow groups to connect in virtual reality and expand the medium’s appeal beyond entertainment applications like gaming.
Workrooms allow up to 16 VR headset users to gather in a virtual conference room, each with its own customizable cartoon-like avatar that appears as merely an upper torso floating slightly above a virtual chair at a table. The software can accommodate up to 50 people in a single meeting, with the remainder joining as video callers who appear on a grid-like flat screen inside the virtual meeting room.
Participants in virtual reality meetings can use their own fingers and hands to gesticulate, and their avatars’ mouths appear to move in realistic ways while they speak. People can use a virtual whiteboard to share photos and create presentations.
While speaking to a (virtual) room of roughly a dozen people on Tuesday, Andrew Bosworth, VP of Facebook Reality Labs, said, “The pandemic in the last 18 months has just given us greater confidence in the relevance of this as a technology.” According to him, Facebook has been using the software internally for nearly a year.
This isn’t the first time that Facebook and its subsidiary Oculus have attempted to popularize social interaction through virtual reality. In 2016 and 2017, the firm released the virtual-hangout apps Oculus Rooms and Facebook Spaces, which allowed small groups of users to assemble in virtual reality.
However, in October of this year, the business shut down both VR apps. Instead, it revealed Horizon, a virtual social realm that would be delivered in 2020. Most users have yet to see Horizon, and Facebook confirmed this week that the program is still in closed beta testing.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other internet industry executives have been talking about plans for a “metaverse” with increasing intensity in recent weeks. The word is based on a decades-old dystopian sci-fi concept for a virtual world that gives an escape from ordinary life’s reality.
Despite its doomsday origins, tech executives are upbeat about what such a metaverse may be, with Facebook even forming a “Metaverse product group” under Bosworth’s leadership.
Workrooms may appear to be a step toward a more communal virtual environment, but it is not the picture provided by Zuckerberg.
When you’re represented in virtual reality by an animated representation of yourself, the app uses a variety of technologies and tactics to make the experience feel as real as possible.
An associated desktop app allows headset wearers to view their real-life computer screens in VR. And Workrooms, with the exception of a sound cancellation feature that eliminates background noise, uses a combination of hand tracking and spatial audio – which accounts for room acoustics and makes sounds appear to come from specific directions – to allow users to interact with each other in ways that mimic real life.
However, it’s evident that Facebook is still ironing out the problems. Bosworth’s avatar froze mid-sentence, the pixels of its digital skin going from flesh-toned to gray, as he was outlining how he sees Workrooms as a more participatory method to assemble digitally with peers than video chat. He’d lost contact with the outside world.
Even with Workrooms, Facebook is still dealing with some of the issues that plague VR: it needs to persuade people (or, in this case, companies) to buy its headsets, use them on a regular basis, and adapt to new ways of interaction – both with the virtual world and with others within it – that are far from perfect.
For example, while Quest 2 can track hands and even individual fingers, allowing users to do things like naturally gesture while talking or flash an okay sign in VR while using Workrooms, if you try to touch both hands together during a VR meeting, they’ll most likely overlap in an awkward way, breaking the illusion of reality and causing discomfort.
Then there’s the actual headset. Bosworth estimates that people will use the app for 30 minutes at a time, and another Facebook team focuses on improving the ergonomics and weight of VR headgear. The Quest 2 presently weighs a little more than a pound, which may not seem like much but was evident during a half-hour meeting.