Facebook unveils Horizon Workrooms for remote co-working in VR

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Facebook is launching its open beta for Horizon Workrooms, a way for people to work together remotely in groups with Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headsets or other ways of connecting.

Workers can use the avatar creation system (built for the Facebook Horizon virtual play platform) to create cartoon-like characters in 3D-animated work spaces and communicate with coworkers in virtual meetings. It’s not quite the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected. But one of these days it probably will be, if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg follows through on his pledge that Facebook is a metaverse company. And it will help VR find its footing as it endeavors to become the next universal computing platform, as Facebook’s Oculus team certainly hopes it will be.

Horizon Workrooms available for free to download on Oculus Quest 2 in countries where Quest 2 is supported.

You can get the full benefits of the free platform by wearing an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset while you’re working. But other people can join via smartphones, desktops, or laptops and participate with varying levels of interaction.

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“You are actually in the demo,” said Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, the vice president of Facebook Reality Labs, in a press briefing. “We’ve been talking about the future of work for a long time. It’s why we’re in AR/VR. The pandemic hitting in the last 18 months has given us greater confidence in this technology.”

He noted we’ve spent that time doing our jobs on video conferencing. A lot of people want to move on to something else, he said.

Mike LeBeau, the director of FRL Work Experiences at Facebook, added, “We have been looking toward our ambitions of this as a metaverse and the future of computing platforms. We think this is an inflection point for VR. This is the moment where we are adapting the medium for that end. We are evolving beyond a games thing to something where you can be productive for work. To make it work, we have brought together a lot of technologies that are needed for work. We are designing the paradigms that are needed for that new computing platform.”

Changing work

Facebook said it designed Workrooms with an acknowledgment that the way we work is changing. More people are working remotely, want flexible work options, and are rethinking what it means to be in an office. But without the right connectivity tools, remote work can be really challenging and isolating.

Brainstorming with other people just doesn’t feel the same if you’re not in the same room, advocates of working in the office maintain.

Workrooms lets people come together to work in the same virtual room, regardless of physical distance. I tried a brief demo of it this week. It took me a while to download the app and log in, but once I did, it was easy to join a room that I had been invited to attend.

It works in both virtual reality and the web and is designed to improve your team’s capability to collaborate, communicate, and connect remotely. You can sit at a table and watch your colleagues’ virtual avatars engage in physical gestures while talking. You can watch them type, or get up and walk to a whiteboard where they can use their (virtual) hands to draw or mark up a document. You can see who is listening to you as you look around the room, or see who happens to be away from the room at the moment, though their avatar is still there.

The sound quality was good, and I could hear things happening in the room and see from body gestures when someone was getting ready to talk. So I could see it was easier to avoid talking over each other, as happens in audio-only apps. The gestures were expressive and they didn’t look random, and so that part of the experience felt good.

The tech

Above: Facebook Workroom lets you design semi-realistic cartoon avatars in 3D.

The technology is pretty impressive when you’re using a Quest 2. You can join with hand controllers or just use your hands to navigate through the features. You can raise a hand and pinch in the air to push a button. You can create a “mixed-reality desk,” where you sit at a physical desk, scan it into the room, and then enable other people to see you are sitting at a desk. They can grab virtual papers and drop them on your virtual desk. And since you can sit down at a real desk and use your computer, you don’t have to leave your regular work tools behind to be in VR.

You can also pair your laptop and bring it into the room, enabling you to share things on your computer with other people. So you can share slide decks or documents. Workrooms has video conferencing integration. It has spatial audio, so you can detect from what direction a sound is coming and so more easily figure out who is talking (this is helpful for when 16 people are in the virtual room).

“This is the software that pushes headsets the hardest,” said Bosworth. “It’s a credit to the team. The question was what was needed for the experience to convince people to put a headset on.”

The new Oculus Avatars were launched earlier this year and give you lots of customization options so that you can get your look right. The spatial audio enables low-latency conversations. When I was in the meeting, I could hear people without audio glitches, though one person dropped out and had to rejoin. That’s something many of us are used to from things like Clubhouse and Zoom.

“You can change your outfit very quickly,” said Saf Samms, a technical program manager at Facebook, in our press briefing. “If I move far away, you can hear that my voice will get quieter.”

On top of that, it can filter out a lot of noises, like typing. You can actually hear some typing, but it’s not overwhelming as it can be in some other kinds of online events. If a baby is crying in the background, people may not hear it, Samms said.

The system uses an Oculus Remote Desktop companion app for Mac and Windows to give you one-click access to your entire computer from VR. You can take notes during the meeting, bring your files into VR, pin images from your computer on the whiteboard, and even share your screen with colleagues if you choose. When you are done, you can export the whiteboard out of VR to share as an image on your computer.

You can also sync your Outlook or Google Calendar to make it easier to schedule meetings and send invites. As I noted, I simply joined Workrooms and tapped on a calendar invite to join a meeting that I was late for.

You can also change the environment and configure the virtual room’s layout to match what you need. We sat at a round table with an open part where we could see people tuning in via video conferencing or smartphones on a virtual screen. A total of 16 people can participate together in VR, while up to 50 can fit on a call, including video participants.

Getting started

If you’re the first of your colleagues to try Workrooms, you can sign up to create a new Workrooms team at workrooms.com. And if your colleagues are already using Workrooms, they can send you an email invite to join their existing Workrooms team. You’ll need to agree to the terms, confirm that you’re 18 years or older, and choose a name to display in Workrooms.

Once you’ve created an account, you can download and install Horizon Workrooms from the Oculus Store on your Quest 2, then follow the instructions in the app to pair your headset to your account and get started.

I happened to be in such a rush that I was standing up in my living room when I created my “virtual desk” using my hand controllers. I basically had to draw the safe space first. Then I had to indicate where the desk was and how high it was. I did this part quickly, and so when I showed up at the meeting, people noticed I was sitting inside a chair, rather than sitting at a virtual table like everyone else. Lebeau had to explain why I looked the way I did to everyone else. I felt a bit sheepish.

Safety and privacy in Workrooms

Above: Working in a Facebook Horizon Workroom. These were actually real people talking to me.

When you choose to collaborate with your coworkers in Workrooms, you should feel in control of your experience, Facebook said.

Workrooms will not use your work conversations and materials to inform ads on Facebook. Additionally, Passthrough processes images and videos of your physical environment from the device sensors locally. Facebook and third-party apps do not access, view or use these images or videos to target ads.

Finally, other people are not able to see your computer screen in Workrooms unless you choose to share it, and the permissions you grant for the Oculus Remote Desktop app are only used for the purposes of allowing streaming from your computer to your headset.

Anyone who signs up for Workrooms must agree to follow Facebook Community Standards and Conduct in VR Policy. If other members or content in the workroom violate these policies, users can contact the team admin who can take action such as removing someone from the Workrooms team. You can also report an entire Workrooms team if you think it’s not following policies. And if you’re in VR with people who
are bothering you, you can report them using the Oculus reporting tool and include evidence for Facebook to review.

Using Workrooms requires a Workrooms account, which is separate from your Oculus or Facebook accounts, although your Oculus username may be visible to other users in some cases—for example if someone reports you for violating policies and your username appears in the tool. And to experience Workrooms in VR, you’ll need to access the app on Quest 2, which requires a Facebook login. Your use of Workrooms will not make any updates to your Facebook profile or timeline unless you choose to do so.

Summing it up

Samms said that one thing that is notable is that you’re able to remember meetings that took place in Workrooms. I don’t know if that is because it is so novel, but that would be great for things like education if it really is true that we can remember such interactions more because they involve visual interaction as well as just hearing people talk.

Bosworth said he has been in some meetings and felt comfortable for a half-hour. But a boring meeting is still a boring meeting, he said.

“This isn’t the metaverse, but it is a step in the direction of the metaverse,” Bosworth said.

I think that logging into VR is still somewhat clunky compared to using your smartphone. But this is a very good step in the “work” part of the quest to enable us to “live, work, and play” in the metaverse.

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