The world is changing as a result of COVID-19. As we settle into this "new normal" and prepare for the strange future, tech companies are reimagining what remote work looks like. In our pandemic world, it's Zoom video calls and collaborative services like Google Docs through a computer monitor, smartphone, or tablet display. But what's the next frontier of remote computing?
Today, Facebook outlined its vision for the "future of work and the next computing platform," detailing how it's going to leverage Workplace, Portal, and Oculus to support remote work. Much of this remote work builds on top of what already exists: more real-time collaboration and more connected communications across platforms. But the most eye-catching development is its "mixed reality workspace concept."
The 8-second video is short but shares a glimpse of how mixed reality could be used to work. In the POV clip, we see a user working through an AR/VR headset while they drag a virtual window from off the side and move it between two virtual windows — one of which is clearly a file manager and the other is a web browser. The user then types words into what appears to be Microsoft Word using their real keyboard. Typing on their real keyboard in what appears to be a virtual window of Microsoft Word, all while being able to see their hands and surrounding workspace.
The video clip ends with the user exiting their mixed reality workspace to reveal their real deskspace's single monitor.
The concept is very cool-looking and similar to VR-OS, but it had me wondering how much of it is real? How close are we to actually working in mixed reality? I've heard all of the promises over the years from the Leap 1, HoloLens, and Google Glass, and none of them delivered on a truly immersive mixed reality experience.
So I asked Facebook. A company spokesperson sent the following to Input: "This is real footage running on a prototype. We're always experimenting with future concepts using different hardware configurations as part of our proof-of-experience process."
This is real footage running on a prototype.
I want to believe it. But I've been duped into so-called immersive experiences before and the real version is rarely as impressive. However, Facebook does have an advantage Magic Leap, Microsoft, and Google don't. Since the Oculus Quest is a VR headset first, there's no limitation to its field of view the way there is on other AR-only headsets — you can literally look in all directions. And with the cameras located on the headset, it can layer on passthrough AR on top of the VR world. It's kind of a win-win for Facebook since its experience uses the best of VR with AR sprinkled on.
Here's Facebook on the setup (emphasis ours):
In the future, we could create a super-powered augmented workspace with multiple customizable screens in VR, unbounded from the limits of physical monitors. It would leverage technologies like Passthrough to create a mixed reality productivity experience that allows people to switch between real and virtual worlds at any time, improving spatial awareness while offering the flexibility we’re accustomed to with laptops and other common devices. By combining the flexibility of new inputs like hand tracking with the familiarity of everyday input devices like a keyboard and mouse, we could give people the best of both worlds.
Facebook's track record also suggests it's dead serious about mixed reality as the next computing platform. From Mark Zuckerberg's obsession with VR — the company is working on AR glasses — to the latest updates to the Quest, which lets you open multiple windows within the web browser, it's clear there's no calling it quits. Facebook is hellbent on making Minority Report-ish computing real, and if it succeeds, I'm all for it.