The launch of Facebook's Horizon Workrooms has some wondering if their next team meeting should be in VR. But experts say there's still a lot for corporate decision makers to consider before pushing their teams into an avatar-filled meeting room.
For one, there's the feasibility of asking employees to wear a VR headset while an executive spends an hour sharing a company's latest projections. Here's what you need to know about Facebook's new meeting product, and what to consider when deciding whether to introduce your team to VR meetings.
How Facebook Horizon works
VR, which was once reserved for video games and one-off immersive experiences, has officially made its way into the conference room. On Thursday, Facebook launched the open beta version of Horizon Workrooms — a VR workplace app for teams that can be downloaded via its Oculus technology.
Eager users can obtain the app by making a Workroom team account via Facebook's Workrooms site and sending their teammates invites to join. Facebook also prompts users to download and install the Horizon Workrooms app from the Oculus store using the headset.
Meetings allow for up to 16 attendees in the virtual room, although up to 50 can dial into the meeting without the Oculus 2 headset. Attendees who are not using the Oculus headset appear within the virtual meeting room as if they are on the video screen in the virtual room. A truly meta experience.
For people using the full virtual version of the app, Workrooms maps their computer keyboard and desk to situate them in the room. Participants are able to take notes on their computers and write on a virtual white board as well. Spatial audio also makes it sound like a real meeting room, right down to the fact that those sitting closer to you will sound louder than those sitting further away.
In order to keep people's data private (think important company numbers being written regularly on the virtual white board), Facebook said for the most part the software streams data via a peer-to-peer connection directly from the computer to the headset — meaning no one device sends or receives the data. In other cases, when this is not possible, the data is encrypted before going through a Facebook server.
What you will need
While the download of Facebook's new app is free, companies will need to purchase the Oculus Quest 2 equipment, which includes the physical headset for employees. A person has to have a Quest 2 to create an account and the same goes for anyone else who wants to join the meeting in VR. Other VR headsets will not work. Companies are also offered the option of purchasing Oculus for Business, which includes the VR equipment, software, warranty and two years of customer support. Purchasing the headsets and accessories for an employee via Oculus for Business currently costs $799 per person. Purchasing a Quest 2 without a business account starts at $299.
Participants should also keep in mind that users need a Facebook account to use the Oculus Quest 2. This could potentially pose a problem for employees who do not have a social media account or don't want to use their personal account for anything work related.
Some say corporate decision makers will also need to consider the possible liability agreements listed in Facebook's terms. Avi Bar-Zeev, the CTO of RealityPrime and a VR pioneer who has worked on virtual reality and augmented reality for Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others told Protocol he would encourage any employer purchasing VR equipment for teams to take a careful look at the liabilities they are incurring, as much of the responsibility falls on the company if anything goes wrong.
"There's all sorts of OSHA and other situations you have to think about when people use VR. There's plenty of videos that you can find on the web of people falling down, walking into walls, just getting hurt, even with Passthrough which is helping with some of those things," he told Protocol.
Is it practical?
The pros of utilizing VR in meetings are obvious to employers who are concerned about the transition from fully remote to hybrid work setups. Many leaders are thinking about how to bridge the gap between the employees who convene in the office and those who work from home. VR could eventually be a great equalizer — a way to get everyone into the same room without feeling the difference between someone sitting in a conference room and another dialing in remotely. But there are aspects to be wary of in terms of practicality, Bar-Zeev told Protocol. Mainly, the reality of frequently utilizing such technology.
The ergonomics of wearing a headset are far from ideal at this point. Bar-Zeev points to the nauseating experience some have had using VR headsets, an issue that has not fully been addressed yet by companies.
"So if you're expecting people to wear these for one to eight hours, can they? Can they actually comfortably wear these without getting sick?" he said. Other physical factors have also proved challenging for comfort while using the headsets.
"Some people have hair that just doesn't fit well for these things and it's just not comfortable for them to wear the device around too much, or it may mess with the way that they feel. So there's a lot of reasons why a lot of people might choose not to use it yet until new generations of hardware are fixing those ergonomic issues."
What are the options?
Horizon Workrooms are far from the only option on the market for companies wishing to consider VR meetings. Other popular applications include Spatial, AltspaceVR and Hubs by Mozilla. And who could forget Second Life, a virtual world application that has existed for almost two decades without the necessity of a headset.
Each offering has its own advantages. Spatial, for example, uses more life-like avatars based on an image of participants in order to feel more real. Bar-Zeev told Protocol that Mozilla's Hubs is the closest thing to the metaverse right now. It's also free.
The main difference between other offerings and Horizon Workrooms is that it encourages participants to use the headset. It also tracks a person's mouth and hands, enhancing the level of connection felt among attendees in meetings. The other systems on the market could easily be used on a laptop or a tablet. There are a number of people who are still using Second Life for meetings.
But the plethora of emerging VR for meetings is promising. "The upside of all this, though, is if we can make these tools let us communicate better than in real life, then we have a chance to create even more understanding than we would face-to-face. That's the future promise, but we're not there yet," said Bar-Zeev.