On Thursday, Facebook Horizon Workrooms, a free app for users of the Oculus Quest 2 headset, unveiled a device starting at $ 299. The app stands out as the company’s most ambitious effort yet to enable groups to socialize in VR and still moving the niche media beyond entertainment applications like gaming.
Workspaces allow up to 16 VR headset users to meet in a virtual conference room, each of which is represented by a custom cartoon-like avatar that appears as just an upper body floating slightly above a virtual chair at a table. The app supports up to 50 participants in a single meeting, with the rest able to participate as video callers displayed on a grid-like flat screen inside the virtual meeting room.
Meeting attendees wearing headsets can use their actual fingers and hands to gesture in VR, and the mouths of their avatars appear to move in lifelike ways while talking. A virtual whiteboard lets people share photos or make presentations.
“The pandemic of the last 18 months has only given us more confidence in the importance of this as a technology,” said Andrew Bosworth, VP of Facebook Reality Labs, speaking to a (virtual) room with about a dozen people on Tuesday. He said Facebook has been using the app internally for about a year.
This is not the first time that Facebook and its subsidiary Oculus have tried to popularize social interaction via VR. The company launched virtual hangout apps Oculus Rooms and Facebook Spaces in 2016 and 2017, respectively, which let small groups of users gather in VR. However, the company closed both VR apps in October 2019. Instead, it announced a virtual social world called Horizon to be released in 2020. Horizon has yet to be shown to most users, and Facebook confirmed this week that the app is still is in a private beta testing phase.
Workspaces can give users a sense of what is to come. It shows how far Facebook has come in mixing hardware and software since the acquisition of Oculus in 2014 – and how far it still has to go.
A step forward – but it’s not the metaverse yet
In recent weeks, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other tech industry leaders have spoken with increasing zeal about visions for a “metaverse.” The concept draws inspiration from a decades-old dystopian sci-fi idea for a virtual world that provides an escape from the realities of everyday life. Despite its grim origins, tech executives talk optimistically about what such a metaverse can be, with Facebook going so far as to create a “Metaverse product group” under Bosworth.
Workspace may look like a step towards a more social virtual world, but that’s not quite the picture Zuckerberg has drawn.
The app uses a wide range of technologies and tricks to make the experience feel as personal as it can be when you are represented in the virtual space by an animated approach to yourself.
Headset users can view their real computer screen in VR via an included desktop app. And Workrooms uses a combination of hand tracking and spatial sound – which accounts for room acoustics and causes sounds to come from specific directions – to allow users to interact with each other in ways that mimic real life, apart from a sound interruption feature, which eliminates background noise.
But it is clear that Facebook is still working on some cracks. While Bosworth, the Facebook boss, was in the middle of describing how he sees Workrooms as a more interactive way to gather virtually with colleagues than video chat, his avatar froze in the middle of the sentence, the pixels of its digital skin turning from flesh-colored to gray. He had been interrupted.
Even with the rollout of workspaces, Facebook continues to suffer from some of the problems plaguing VR: it needs to convince people (or perhaps in this case companies) to buy its headset, use it regularly and adapt to new methods of interaction – both with it virtual world and with others within that world – that remain far from perfect.
For example, while Quest 2 can track hands and even individual fingers – allowing users to do things like gestures naturally while talking or blinking an okay character in VR while using Workrooms – if you try to touch both hands together during a VR meeting, it is likely that they are simply overlapping in an awkward way that breaks the illusion of reality and presence.
Then there is the headset itself. Bosworth said he expects people to use the app for about 30 minutes at a time and that another team on Facebook is working to improve the ergonomics and weight of VR headsets. Quest 2 currently weighs a little over a pound, which may not sound like much, but was certainly noticeable during a half-hour meeting.
(Facebook stopped selling the headset in late July following a voluntary recall related to reports of skin irritation caused by the headset’s removable foam pad; the company said it would resume sales of the headset, this time with a silicone pad, on August 24.)
One thing Bosworth noted, however, that the app cannot improve is how engaging meetings are.
“Even VR can’t make your boring meeting less boring,” he said.
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