First, there was gaming. Then fitness. Now, Facebook believes it has found the next killer use case for VR: corporate meetings.
The company launched a new VR meeting product called Horizon Workrooms in open beta Thursday that allows anyone to meet with up to 15 co-workers in a virtual office — complete with virtual whiteboards and shared computer screens.
"People are tired of video calling," said Facebook AR and VR VP Andrew Bosworth during a press briefing this week. "There is a real demand for better tools." Bosworth admitted that there were great use cases for video calls, but lamented that group calls were too transactional, and mentally too taxing.
"What is lost a lot is creativity, creative work," he said, joking that lots of companies would find themselves without innovative new products in the coming months because of a lack of casual interactions that lead to new ideas. "Those are really hard to replicate remotely," he said.
Bosworth made those remarks during an in-VR demo of Workrooms, with avatars of journalists and Facebook employees seated around a U-shaped virtual conference room. Before the meeting, each participant was able to install a new remote desktop app on their computers that allowed them to view their computer screen in VR.
Following the demo, a Facebook spokesperson clarified some of the safeguards the company has put in place to keep this data private: In most cases, the remote desktop software streams data via a P2P connection directly from the computer to the headset. When that's not possible, it is being encrypted before it is relayed through a Facebook server.
The app also mapped a computer's keyboard as well as everyone's physical desk, allowing participants to type and take notes — something Facebook first demonstrated a year ago.
"The experience is anchored around my desk," said Facebook Reality Labs Work Experiences Director Mike LeBeau. Mapping everyone's desk surface makes it easier to incorporate the desk space into VR, and, for instance, use one's desktop as a virtual whiteboard. But LeBaeu also argued that it symbolizes coming together in VR. "This is my desk in London, and you all have your desks around the world," he said. "But in here, they are all the same desk."
Workrooms also make extensive use of spatial audio, which means that voices actually correspond to the position of an avatar in the room. "It allows for a reduced cognitive load," said Facebook Technical Program Manager Saf Samms.
Using the VR portion of Workrooms requires an Oculus Quest 2 headset, but the service also allows up to 34 non-VR participants to dial in via their desktop. In addition, each Workroom is connected to a Facebook Workspace web interface, which can be used to share notes and files, as well as schedule new meetings.
People can also switch between three different room layouts, which include a room optimized for presentations, but there's no option to decorate one's meeting room just yet. "Over time, we will allow people to customize," Bosworth said.
Even without wallpapers and knick-knacks, Workspace does feel like an intriguing option to mix up meetings, and at the very least, it provides a break from the typical Zoom screen. At the same time, it's a product that's not all that easy to explain, and that may sound less than appealing to people with limited exposure to VR.
"At first, it sounds weird," admitted Bosworth. "That's a problem that VR always had."