Workrooms allows up to 16 VR headset users to meet in a virtual conference room, with each of them represented by a customizable cartoon-like avatar that appears as just an upper body floating slightly above a virtual chair at a table. The app supports up to 50 participants in a single meeting, with the rest able to join as video callers who appear in a grid-like flat screen inside the virtual meeting room.
Headset-wearing meeting participants can use their actual fingers and hands to gesticulate in VR, and their avatars’ mouths appear to move in lifelike ways while they speak. A virtual whiteboard lets people share pictures or make presentations.
“The pandemic in the last 18 months has only given us greater confidence in the importance of this as a technology,” Andrew Bosworth, VP of Facebook Reality Labs, said while addressing a (virtual) room of about a dozen people on Tuesday. He said Facebook has been using the app internally for about a year.
A step forward — but it’s not the metaverse, yet
Workrooms may look like a step toward a more social virtual world, but it’s not quite the picture Zuckerberg has painted.
The app employs a slew of technologies and tricks to make the experience feel as in-person as it can be when you’re represented in virtual space by an animated approximation of yourself.
Headset wearers can view their real-life computer screen in VR via an accompanying desktop app. And Workrooms uses a combination of hand tracking and spatial audio — which accounts for room acoustics and makes sounds appear to come from specific directions — to allow users to interact with each other in ways that mimic real life, except for a sound cancellation feature that eliminates background noise.
But it’s clear Facebook is still working out some kinks. While Bosworth, the Facebook executive, was in the middle of describing how he sees Workrooms as a more interactive way to gather virtually with coworkers than video chat, his avatar froze mid-sentence, the pixels of its digital skin turning from flesh-toned to gray. He had been disconnected.
Even with the rollout of Workrooms, Facebook continues to suffer from some of the problems plaguing VR: it must convince people (or perhaps in this case companies) to buy its headsets, use them regularly, and adapt to new methods of interaction — both with the virtual world and with others within that world — that remain far from perfect.
For instance, while Quest 2 can track hands and even individual fingers — making it possible for users to do things like gesture naturally while talking or flash an okay sign in VR while using Workrooms — if you try to touch both hands together during a VR meeting, it’s likely they’ll simply overlap in an awkward way that breaks the illusion of reality and presence.
Then there’s the headset itself. Bosworth said he expects people will use the app for about 30 minutes at a time, and that another team at Facebook is working on improving the ergonomics and weight of VR headsets. The Quest 2 currently weighs a bit over a pound, which may not sound like much but was definitely noticeable throughout the course of a half-hour meeting.
One thing Bosworth noted that the app can’t improve on, however, is how engaging meetings are.
“Even VR cannot make your boring meeting less boring,” he said.