On Thursday, Facebook launched Horizon Workrooms—its first major step toward CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s imagined metaverse, an all-encompassing alternate reality that blends the real world with digital imaginations and enhancements.
Zoom for nerds in goggles
This isn’t the most flattering way to describe Horizon Workrooms, but it’s not exactly inaccurate. The basic concept is that instead of videoconferencing with a webcam, participants use virtual reality gear—like Facebook’s own Oculus Quest 2—to meet up in a VR workspace.
We haven’t been able to run the app yet; my own Oculus Quest is an original model, sadly unsupported for Horizon Workrooms. (We don’t know why the OG Quest isn’t supported but suspect it has something to do with enhanced controller-less hand tracking on the newer model.) Two-dimensional recordings almost certainly don’t do the experience justice—they look like Habbo Hotel and Bitmoji got together and had a baby.
Engadget, who got to test the app prerelease, reports that the real experience is considerably more impressive. Spatial audio processing renders your colleagues’ voices closer or farther away depending on how close you’re “seated” to one another in virtual space. There’s also the usual VR added-immersion factor, which is difficult to express to anyone who hasn’t experienced it directly.
Aside from providing the basics of getting together in a virtual “room” and chatting, Workrooms supports the usual teleconference features—whiteboards, screen sharing, chat, and so forth. Meeting participants can draw freehand on their own desk or the whiteboard, pin images from their computer to the whiteboard, and mark them up, with the ability to export an image of the whiteboard itself to the computer for later use or sharing.
Body tracking, not Facebook tracking
Obviously, Horizon Workrooms supports head-tracking—if you turn your head to look at a colleague or a room whiteboard, your vision pans along with you. But Workrooms also supports controller-less gesture tracking, enabling one colleague to give another a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, among other gestures.
Thankfully, Facebook says it is abstaining from the less-friendly kind of tracking it normally performs on its users elsewhere. “Workrooms will not use your work conversations and materials to inform ads on Facebook,” the company says, and it also makes an effort to limit how much data leaves your office or home office in the first place.
Another feature Workrooms offers is a layered, mixed reality that incorporates passthrough video from the Quest 2’s sensors; participants can choose to look “through” the VR headset to see a grainy, grayscale image of what’s in the real world with them. (This should especially be a blessing for users with limited touch-typing skills.) Facebook promises neither it nor third-party apps will be allowed to access, view, or use images and videos from your real-world environment to target ads.
For those who don’t have their VR gear handy—or don’t want to use it—you can call into Workrooms with a standard webcam and microphone and show up on a virtual television screen within the workspace. Workrooms supports up to 50 people on a call, 16 of whom can be in full VR.
Quest 2 users can try Workrooms today
If you’re 18 years or older and have an Oculus Quest 2, you can head to the open beta of workrooms.com today and set up or join a Workrooms team with your friends and colleagues.
For those who would like to see a bit more but don’t have a Quest 2 to play with, there is a short video clip available on Facebook.
Listing image by Facebook