This week, Facebook invited journalists into its vision of the future office.
Instead of attending in person or dialling in via Zoom, reporters donned headsets and used digital avatars of themselves to attend the company’s first media event exclusively in virtual reality.
The gimmick marked the launch of Horizon Workrooms, a new free Facebook app designed to allow employees to work together in a shared, imaginary office.
The app can project a user’s real-life computer into this world, viewed through Facebook’s own Oculus virtual reality headsets, allowing workers to sit with colleagues, chat and collaborate using virtual whiteboards.
Its launch is just one small part of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s sweeping ambition to build an immersive, avatar-inhabited digital space known as the metaverse where people can socialise, but also work.
“The idea is you go in, wherever you are, you can have your perfect set-up, people can stop in and collaborate quickly. But it’s really great for focused work,” Zuckerberg — in avatar form — told reporters. “What we’re trying to move towards is a world where a lot of what we do is in here . . . We think it’s going to be a big use case for VR.”
Its success may hinge on whether the company, battered by years of privacy complaints, can provide adequate reassurances to workers that their virtual office life remains private.
Facebook said it would not access the images of a user’s physical environment, which are processed locally on the headset, and discarded after display. While the audio contents of meetings are processed on Facebook’s servers, the company said it would not store that data. It would not use “work conversations and materials to inform ads”, it added.
The announcement comes after Zuckerberg recently announced a major push into augmented reality and VR, as the social media platform joins Silicon Valley rivals Apple and Google in a push to build the next computing platform beyond the smartphone.
The social media group is now spending billions of dollars a year and has hired more than 10,000 staff to work on various projects in the space, including the development of AR glasses and the metaverse, a persistent virtual space that can be accessed from different devices.
But Zuckerberg has long suggested he believes VR and AR could also revolutionise the workplace specifically, last year telling investors on an earnings call that he envisaged a futuristic world in which people would “hologram into work”.
While there are no holograms in Workrooms, users can customise avatars — with different hairstyles and clothing for example — to create a digital version of themselves to enter the virtual office, with mountains and lakes glistening through the virtual windows.
Facebook said Workrooms was one of the first of its initiatives designed from the get-go to use hand tracking technology, rather than controllers, meaning that as a user makes gestures, their avatar will largely replicate those movements.
The company also wields spatial audio technology to give a heightened sense of presence, with users hearing from others around the room based on where they are seated. If, for example, one attendee turns away from the group as they are speaking, their voice will get fainter for others around the digital meeting table.
A user can also have their real-life computer display on their digital computer through the headset, as well as certain compatible keyboards.
“We think of Workrooms not so much as just a virtual reality experience but actually as a mixed reality experience,” said Mike LeBeau, director of Facebook Reality Labs’ Work Experiences. “It’s blending some elements of the real world with some elements of the virtual world, so you can get ideally the best of both worlds.”
With Workrooms, Facebook is entering a fairly sparse market, inhabited largely by smaller, specialised groups such as MeetinVR and Spatial.
Whether it gains traction or not will depend largely on whether businesses and non-gaming consumers are ready to embrace wearing cumbersome headsets and swap Zoom fatigue for glossy cartoon versions of themselves.
But Facebook hopes it can be an entry point that draws new users into virtual reality. Executives noted the product was not perfect, saying they were still working through several bugs.
So far, the initiative appears to be more a vanity project than a cash cow. Much like Facebook’s existing video conferencing features, the app will be free. Workrooms will not show advertisements, the company said, adding that it had “no plans to do so in the future”.