Yesterday, I sat down for a meeting in a room full of people for the first time in over a year. Everyone had their laptops or computers in front of them and clacked away at their keyboards. One person walked up to a whiteboard and started drawing and writing on it.
Everyone looked genuinely happy to be together in the same space again as we turned our heads and looked at familiar faces and heard familiar voices.
Here’s the thing: None of us actually were in the same room. We were sitting at a virtual table in a virtual room inside of Horizon Workrooms, Facebook’s new virtual reality remote collaboration experience for the Oculus Quest 2.
None of us actually were in the same room.
The dozen people including myself weren’t physically together, but it sure felt like we were. When Andrew Bosworth, VP of Facebook Reality Labs, spoke, it sounded like he was directly across the table from me.
Facebook believes Workrooms is the next breakthrough for remote collaboration. Compared to video calling, which is a 2D interface, Workrooms adds dimensional presence, albeit in a virtual space. It’s another step towards the “metaverse” that Facebook is building with the Oculus platform, and it could be the future of meetings and collaborations.
Future of collab?
Workrooms launches today as an open beta, available for free, to Oculus Quest 2 users. Setup was simple. Prior to my meeting with Facebook, I created a Workrooms account. Then, set up Oculus Remote Desktop on my Windows 10 PC (also works with macOS Big Sur and Catalina); this is the app you need to access your computer in VR. Next, I downloaded a pre-release version of Workrooms from the Oculus Store and installed it on my Quest 2.
Donning my Quest 2, I opened Workrooms, joined the Workrooms meeting I was invited to, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting at a C-shaped table full of people. I’ve been using my Quest 2 a ton over the past year, mingling with others in the many social experiences available in VR, and Workrooms still felt refreshing as if I were using VR for the first time.
That’s the unsaid thing about VR: Even though it’s going to be about 10 years since a kid named Palmer Luckey had the aspirational idea to cobble together a VR headset from old smartphone parts, new VR experiences still feel new. It’s especially the case when something like Workrooms offers a mixed reality experience that combines VR with AR.
At first, you might think Workrooms is a product born from quarantine — working from home, remote, or in a hybrid environment at the office. That’s not the case according to Bosworth. He says Workrooms has been in the works for years pre-COVID. It’s launching in a COVID world, but it’s only now with the Quest 2 that Facebook was able to make the collaborative tools easy and responsive enough to ship. Emphasis on enough, because it’s far from super smooth at all times, but more on that later.
What does Workrooms offer that you can’t get on Zoom or FaceTime or Teams? Immersion and collaboration. As robust as video calling has become, its biggest downside is that it lacks presence. No matter if it’s a 1:1 or a 100-person call, seeing everyone in their 2D boxes on your computer is impersonal. I’m reminded of this two-dimensionality every time I hear a person’s voice come through muffled or staticky or when the lighting is poor and I can’t see a person’s face properly.
In Workrooms, presence, through head turns, clear spatial audio, and body articulations, come through just like in real life. When a person is presenting or writing on a whiteboard, you can hear the sound quality of their voice change as they turn their mouth away from you. I felt fully — as opposed to only half — present seeing and hearing Technical Program Manager Saf Samms talk next to me. I noticed myself nodding along as I would in person; I never nod during a Zoom call. The spatial audio and noise-cancellation are surprisingly great on the Quest 2 — far clearer than on any video call I’ve ever been on.
As any VR evangelist will tell you, presence is one of the most powerful things about VR. In Workrooms, up to 16 people can meet together in VR; 50 people can hang out total, but 34 of them can only do so via 2D video (like a video call through a web browser, no Quest required) within the virtual room.
But Workrooms isn’t just about meeting together in VR. There are tons of apps like VRChat or Rec Room for socializing. Its main appeal is mirroring physical productivity in virtual reality. That means virtualizing your desk by letting you sit at a real desk (wherever you are in the world) to access your computer via the Oculus Remote Desktop and letting you type on a real keyboard before you within the Workrooms meeting room. It also means using the Quest controller (flipped backward) to jot down notes or doodles on a personal virtual notepad, writing on a virtual whiteboard for all meeting attendees to see (or standing alongside others to share and work on the same whiteboard), and casting your computer screen to a giant virtual whiteboard projection for presentations,
Maybe the most absurd thing is how natural working in Workrooms feels. Working at my virtual desktop felt real even though everyone’s a cartoony avatar version of themselves, their torsos floating in midair in a chair or in front of a whiteboard. I thought these video game-like doppelgangers would break my suspension of disbelief, but it didn’t. Even weirder, I had no craving for more realism — more lifelike avatar models, eye tracking, or even facial expressions — though I would surely welcome it if Facebook decides to go hyper-realistic one day. There’s a Muppet-like dullness to avatars’ eyes if you look at them long enough, but generally, our virtual selves are friendly looking, which sure beats seeing a bored or upset person.
What reminded me that I was within a virtual space was the glitchiness. I can’t speak for other attendees in the room, but my Workrooms experience was less than smooth all the time. Though I had no problems using my mouse to click around my Windows 10 PC connected via Oculus Remote Desktop, my keyboard didn’t always mix into VR correctly. Sometimes the Apple Magic Keyboard appeared on my virtual desk and sometimes it didn’t. There’s an option to use the Quest 2’s Passthrough feature to bring your hands into the VR world, but it’s a buggy experience. Not to mention, your hands appear in black and white, which is a dead giveaway that you’re not in the real world.
Bosworth told me Facebook has some of the best computer vision technology available at its disposal for recognizing different keyboard models and layouts. But it’s still a really hard thing to solve for, especially when you try to overlay your hands over the keys, which makes it even difficult for the cameras on the outside of the Quest 2 headset to recognize and track. They’re throwing all their machine learning at it. At launch, Workrooms only supports MacBook keyboards, Apple’s Magic Keyboard, or the Logitech K830. Another journalist complained about her Acer laptop keyboard not working properly.
Hand-tracking also wasn’t 100 percent responsive. Obviously, there’s a blind spot underneath the headset where there are no cameras, but sometimes my arms and fingers would bug out and they’d look like twisted limbs. Occasionally, some of the idle (they appeared grayed out with eyes closed like they were meditating) users, who were our virtual cameramen, would glitch out of their virtual seats as if they were crashing. I chuckled when that happened and realized I was unmuted and some of the others might have heard me.
And there’s lag. Not when people are talking or whiteboarding, but when I was trying to type in my own virtual desktop. I could see lag between my fingers touching the keys, my fingers were misaligned over the keys, and there was lag navigating tabs within Chrome and channels in Slack. I ran a Speedtest and even though I was pulling 141Mbps downloads and 52 Mbps uploads, there was visible latency when I typed in a Google Docs, which is pretty lightweight and barebones!
Workrooms is not complete. That’s why it’s launching in beta and why there are still some rough edges. It’s Facebook’s first stab at a collaborative way to work together in VR. I see a lot of potential with what Workrooms is trying to accomplish.
COVID is undoubtedly changing the definition of work — what it is and how it’s done. While I believe many people will return to offices, the future is heading towards flexible in-person and remote work. Zoom cemented itself as a tool for remote work, but what is next? Is it Workrooms or something similar? Is it VR or AR or MR?
Zoom cemented itself as a tool for remote work, but what is next?
Facebook anticipates that MR could play a big role in remote/virtual work. That’s why it has spent billions of dollars building out the Oculus. The Quest hardware will get more powerful over time, but the software needs to invented. Workrooms is a work in progress. If this is the future of meetings and collaboration, Facebook is already ahead of the curve with an experience that is approachable and accessible for consumers compared to the enterprise offerings from Microsoft’s HoloLens, Magic Leap, Google Glass (yes, these still exist). Apple is rumored to be entering the MR world with its own mixed reality headset, but that’s not until 2022 the earliest and could cost as much as $3,000. A Quest 2 headset costs $300.
On the flip side, it’s very possible that Facebook is building up VR and the metaverse to be this revolution, only for things to not pan out. I can’t predict the future. But I know one thing that’s certain: Mark Zuckerberg isn’t gonna stop throwing unfathomable amounts of money at VR. He’s very bullish on everyone working, playing, and socializing in a virtual universe. But will everyone join him?