UPDATED! Facebook Launches Horizon Workrooms, a Remote Workteams VR App for the Oculus Quest 2

Yesterday, Facebook announced their entry into what I collectively term the YARTVRA (Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App) marketplace, a product called Horizon Workrooms. Here’s the promotional video for this new social VR platform for the workplace:

What is interesting is that Facebook is confident enough in this platform to launch it in open beta, as opposed to Facebook Horizon, which is still in closed, invitation-only beta. And while Horizon Workrooms is, according to the official announcement, “available for free on Oculus Quest 2 in all countries where Quest 2 is supported“, that list of nations notably omits Germany, where the country’s Bundeskartellamt or Federal Cartel Office (FCO) is investigating the company’s decision to forcibly yoke Oculus VR hardware owners to accounts on the Facebook social network.

As to that decision, Facebook states:

When you choose to collaborate with your coworkers in Workrooms, you should feel in control of your experience, and we built Workrooms with privacy and safety in mind.

Workrooms will not use your work conversations and materials to inform ads on Facebook. The audio contents of your meeting are processed on Facebook servers but not stored, unless someone records and sends us a clip as part of a report. In this case, we’ll use the information to take appropriate action and then delete the recordings. Finally, Passthrough processes images and videos of your physical environment from the device sensors locally. Facebook and third-party apps do not access, view, or use these images or videos to target ads. Other people are not able to see your computer screen in Workrooms unless you choose to share it, and the permissions you grant for the Oculus Remote Desktop app are only used for the purposes of allowing streaming from your computer to your headset.

In addition to keeping your information secure, we want everyone to feel safe while collaborating in Workrooms. That’s why anyone who signs up for Workrooms must agree to follow our Facebook Community Standards and Conduct in VR Policy. If other members or content in the workroom violate these policies, you can always contact the team admin who can take action such as removing someone from the Workrooms team. You can also report an entire Workrooms team if you think it’s not following our policies. And If you’re in VR with people who are bothering you, you can report them using the Oculus reporting tool and include evidence for us to review.

Using Workrooms requires a Workrooms account, which is separate from your Oculus or Facebook accounts, although your Oculus username may be visible to other users in some cases—for example if someone reports you for violating our policies and your username appears in the tool. And to experience Workrooms in VR, you’ll need to access the app on Quest 2, which requires a Facebook login. That being said, your use of Workrooms will not make any updates to your Facebook profile or timeline unless you choose to do so.

While offering a free collaborative VR platform on a low-cost, wireless VR headset will certainly be tempting to businesses (and it may sound a death knell to some YARTVRA competitors out there), the requirement to set up a personal account on the Facebook social network to use Horizon Workrooms is going to continue to be a stumbling block for many of the companies that Facebook is targeting with this product (and the bigger the company, the more likely that their legal department is going to have objections).

Still, there are several notable features in Horizon Workrooms. Instead of using an awkward workaround to tap at a virtual keyboard, you can bring your physical desk and a compatible tracked keyboard, where you can see them sitting on the virtual meeting table in front of you. Road to VR reports:

The app includes a fully functional virtual desktop, which leverages a companion app installed on your PC or Mac to stream your computer’s desktop to a virtual screen in front of you. This means you can continue to access your computer even while you’re inside the headset, and you can even share your screen with others in the room.

To make it easier to use your real keyboard that’s on the desk in front of you, Horizon Workrooms supports keyboard tracking which allows it to detect a handful of specific keyboards, and create a virtual representation of them so that you can see and type on without being ‘blinded’ by the headset.

Right now Horizon Workrooms only supports Macbook keyboards, the Apple Magic keyboard, and the Logitech K830, though the company says they’re working to support more in the future.

If you don’t happen to have one of these keyboards luckily there’s a backup option. You can enable a ‘desk passthrough’ view which cuts out a portion of the virtual desk in front of you to show your actual hands on your actual keyboard. I was surprised how well it worked. While the passthrough video quality isn’t good enough to easily make out the letters on individual keys, for proficient typists it at least makes it easy to keep your hands properly aligned and prevents blindly reaching around for your keyboard. Now if only they could support coffee mug tracking too….

While it’s nice to have your usual desktop right in front of you—and all of the productivity capabilities that confers—it’s far from a perfect replacement for your actual PC. Latency between the PC and headset is surprisingly high, making mouse movements and keyboard input much more sluggish than you’re used to (especially if you have a high refresh rate monitor). Hopefully this is something they can improve going forward.

A look at how you can integrate your real-life keyboard into Horizon Workrooms (image source)

Anybody who has tried to use what Philip Rosedale has pejoratively called a “marimba keyboard” (i.e. where you use a mallet-like device to awkwardly type on a virtual keyboard in VR), can immediately see the benefits of this!

Horizon Workrooms also features spatial audio (is this the same as High Fidelity’s product, I wonder?), as well as “new and improved” Oculus Avatars, which are still upper-body only. Other features include whiteboards, where you can flip your Oculus Touch hand controller around and use it as a whiteboard marker. In fact, once you enable hand tracking in the Quest 2, you probably won’t need to use the hand controllers as much, anyway. According to the official announcement:

Workrooms is one of our first experiences that was designed from the start to use your hands, and not controllers, as your primary input. This helps to create a more natural and expressive social experience and lets you switch more easily between physical tools like your keyboard and controllers when needed. (To ensure the best experience, you’ll need to enable hand tracking to use Workrooms.)

Furthermore, Facebook wants to make Horizon Workrooms features available for other Oculus Quest developers to use:

We hope that developers are excited to use many of the same features seen in Workrooms in their own apps, and we’re working hard to bring them to our platform as well. You can already start by using our hand tracking and spatial audio features in your own apps today. And we’re working to bring avatarsPassthrough, mixed-reality desk, and tracked keyboard capabilities to the platform too. We’re excited to continue growing the VR for work ecosystem, and we hope that Workrooms serves as inspiration for how these features can work together.

We think VR will fundamentally transform the way we work as a new computing platform, defying distance to help people collaborate better from anywhere. Horizon Workrooms is a big first step towards this vision, and we look forward to hearing your feedback.

I note with interest that Horizon Workrooms does not appear to be available for the Oculus Rift tethered VR headset, which Facebook has already discontinued in favour of the Oculus Quest 2. I wonder why; no doubt there are still plenty of Oculus Rifts in use. Perhaps Facebook judged that it was not worth the extra work to make it happen, deciding instead to go all-in on the Oculus Quest ecosystem. (Also, the percentage of businesses using Rifts is probably pretty small.)

Horizon Workrooms looks to be a very useful and fully-featured product, which businesses and other organizations can use for free. However, we all already know, after numerous past Facebook privacy controversies, if it’s “free”, you are the product (even with Facebook’s assurances that it won’t use that data it collects to target advertising to you). I will continue to watch and report from the sidelines.

For further information about Horizon Workrooms, please read the official announcement, or visit their brand new website (and I do hope whoever was sitting on the domain name “workrooms.com” was handsomely compensated when Facebook bought it!). I have duly added Horizon Workrooms to my ever-expanding comprehensive list of social VR and virtual worlds.

A look at the new and improved avatars in Horizon Workrooms (image source)

UPDATE Sept. 6th, 2021: Apparently, Horizon Workrooms is not (repeat, NOT) available to Oculus for Business users…say what?!??

We wanted to try it, so we reached out to Oculus since we only have Oculus for Business headsets, and they said it wasn’t available for OfB, which seems to kind of defeat the purpose of this.

Is PCVR Dead?

Have you joined the RyanSchultz.com Discord yet? You’re invited to be a part of the first ever cross-worlds discussion group, with over 500 people participating from every social VR platform and virtual world! We discuss, debate and argue about the ever-evolving metaverse and the companies building it. Come join us! More details here.


Does the sales success of the Oculus Quest 2 spell doom for tethered VR hardware and software? (Photo by Remy Gieling on Unsplash)

Cix Liv, a VR developer who has a bit of a reputation as a gadfly in the virtual reality industry, made the following bold claim on Twitter yesterday:

Sorry to my VR friends.

I declare PCVR dead.

Prove me wrong.

PCVR is the umbrella term used to refer to tethered VR headsets, which require a high-end desktop computer with a powerful graphics card to run. Examples of PCVR headsets are the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and my beloved Valve Index. Right now, the standalone Oculus Quest 2 is selling like hotcakes, and Facebook has in fact stopped selling the Oculus Rift headset:

It was only a matter of time, really. Facebook announced in April of this year that it would not be sending more Rift S units to retailers—once they sold out, that was it for the Rift S.

“Rift S is still available for sale currently in some channels around the world, but as we announced last year, we plan to stop selling Rift S in 2021,” Facebook told UploadVR at the time. “Generally speaking, as channels sell out of stock, they won’t be replenished.”

So, while you can probably still get your hands on an Rift via resellers (you can still find units on Amazon, for example), its days are clearly numbered.

Is PCVR indeed dead, as Cix asserts? His tweet raised a lot of comments, among them Kent Bye, a thoughtful VR commentator and podcaster of the Voices of VR podcast:

Kent Bye: There’s still lots of things at the frontiers of digital culture still in PCVR< like film festivals (Sundance, Tribeca, Venice and SXSW) happening in the Museum of Other Realities, full-body tracking, LBE [location-based events], live theater in VRChat and NeosVR. It’s an open platform that’ll never really die.

Cix Liv: “Die” is an extreme claim that is lacking nuance. The more expanded nuance would address the specific use cases where it will never die: mocap [motion capture], LBE, emboded docial [platforms] like VRChat. For broad consumer uses, it’s dead [in my opinion).

Kent Bye: I disagree. New communications mediums never fully replace previous mediums. We still have radio, TV, PCs, phones. PCs are ‘open platforms”. Mobile has thermal/power tradeoffs and people will ALWAYS want premium experiences like Half-Life: Alyx, Also, Steam Deck is an open PC.

Thrillseeker actually dropped a 15-minute YouTube video on this very topic today:

The video is engaging and raises lots of good points, but Thrillseeker eventually declares himself for the PCVR-is-not-dead camp, noting that the Oculus Quest 2 can also be used as a PCVR headset. He predicts that PCVR will never die, as Kent did.

Cix Liv eventually got so much blowback that he tweeted:

Please god tell everyone else that in the thread who is lighting me up for saying this.

I am not hating on PC VR because it’s trendy, the numbers so low Devs can’t even make a living now.

The reasons can be debated, but it’s the reality.

Cix argues that the numbers of sales of PCVR hardware and software are now so much lower than standalone VR, that it’s not worth the risk to develop for PCVR. For example, Oculus just announced that Lone Echo 2 would be the last PCVR exclusive that they would be shipping. Steam statistics show that PCVR usage is down. There’s haven’t been any really big PCVR releases in a while, with really nothing to match the hype of Half-Life: Alyx. And PCVR-only social VR platforms have struggled lately, either pivoting to new markets (e.g. Sansar, to live events) or shutting down completely (e.g. the old High Fidelity platform).

So, what do you think? Is PCVR doomed, or it just having a pause? Are standalone VR headsets going to kill tethered VR headsets? Please feel free to leave a comment on this blogpost, or join in the never-ending, freewheeling discussions and debates taking place among the 500+ users on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server. Thanks!

Editorial: Some Facebook Musings on a Lazy Saturday Morning

Image by Firmbee from Pixabay

It’s been ten oh-so-glorious months since I decided to boycott Facebook and trade in my Oculus Rift for a Valve Index, and I continue to celebrate (nay, revel!) my near-complete emancipation from Facebook software and hardware. (I did have one person tell me he would no longer bother reading my blog after my decision… to which I responded Bye, Felicia!)

I have done a factory reset on my Oculus Quest (first edition), and it sits quietly in its box, waiting to be shipped to my sister-in-law in Alberta, where she plans to use it in her work with developmentally-challenged adults. I have completely deleted both my Facebook and Oculus accounts, and I asked Facebook to delete all my personal data. The Facebook app has never graced my relatively new iPhone. I even installed Privacy Badger and uBlock origin to block the setting and sending of tracking cookies to Facebook while I surf the Web! I think I have burned my bridges pretty effectively. (Now, I am not kidding myself, I am quite sure that Facebook has some sort of “shadow account” on me.)

In fact, the only remnant of Facebook left in my life the Oculus Rift I had purchased for my suspended research project, which sits in my office at the University of Manitoba Libraries, untouched as I continue to work from home during the pandemic. (I’m still figuring out what my new academic research project will be!) That VR headset has an Oculus account, and I have a little under two years to decide if I want to get a Facebook account for it when I am forced to do so. I can tell you one thing: if I do, it sure the hell won’t be in my name! I’m quite sure that many institutions of higher education are dealing with the thorny issues of being required to set up Facebook accounts for Oculus hardware. I’m also quite sure that Facebook/Oculus has lost some business because of that requirement!

At the same time, I am glad that the Oculus Quest 2 is selling well. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” as I like to say, and greater consumer uptake of VR will only mean good things for the entire VR/AR/XR ecosystem. People whose first taste of virtual reality is in an Oculus Quest will no doubt migrate to other hardware over time (many people are eagerly awaiting to see what Apple will do). I’ll tell you one thing: I trust Apple with my privacy way, waaay more than Facebook! I watch with amusement as the privacy battle between Facebook and Apple continues.

My experience with Facebook has informed the skepticism with which I look at all social media platforms, including the ones I use the most: Twitter and Reddit. I still derive value (and leads for potential blogposts!) from both, and I intend to continue to use them, and I still hang out on the new drop-in social audio apps Clubhouse and Spotify Greenroom (although I suspect that the Clubhouse boom has turned into a bust). However, I will never again use social media without wondering about data and privacy issues. Remember, if it’s “free”. YOU are the product!

I’ve also been watching Facebook take its first tentative steps into introducing advertising in Oculus apps. The BBC reported:

In what the social network described as an experiment, ads will begin to appear in a game called Blaston with other developers rolling out similar ads.

It said it would listen to feedback before launching virtual reality ads more widely.

It also revealed it is testing new ad formats “that are unique to VR”.

In 2014, shortly after Facebook bought Oculus, creator Palmer Luckey told concerned gamers: “We are not going to track you, flash ads at you, or do anything invasive.”

But in a blog on Oculus’s website, the firm said: “We’re exploring new ways for developers to generate revenue – this is a key part of ensuring we’re creating a self-sustaining platform that can support a variety of business models that unlock new types of content and audiences.”

Shortly after this was written, Blaston withdrew from the program after the negative press and review-bombing by unhappy players:

Barely a week has passed since Facebook started testing ads in Oculus apps and already the initiative has run into trouble. On Monday, one of the handful of developers involved in the initial ad experiment said it was pulling out of the test. Resolution Games tweeted that it had decided that in-app ads were not suitable for its multiplayer shooter game Blaston after “listening to player feedback.”

The developer had encouraged its user base to leave their thoughts on an ad feedback channel on its Discord server. As spotted by Upload VR, angry players had also review bombed Blaston on the Oculus Store and Steam shortly after its participation in the ad trial was announced.

Resolution Games’ decision marks a setback for Facebook’s burgeoning ad strategy for Oculus. After squeezing more ads into Instagram and its main platform, the company risked irking passionate gamers by bringing ads to VR. Unlike those other services, Oculus isn’t free: An Oculus Quest 2 headset alone starts from $299. While Blaston is also a paid game. 

I have been informed that, in fact, Facebook sells the Oculus Quest at a loss, hoping to earn back that money through software sales for the platform (which makes sense). In a discussion with Voices of VR podcaster Kent Bye (whom I admire greatly), I mentioned that I didn’t feel the need to subscribe to VRChat Plus, and he challenged me to consider the alternative: paid advertising in VRChat. I can tell you that the very thought made me shudder, and I changed my mind in a hurry, happily shelling out for a VRChat Plus subscription. And apparently, they are selling well:

Our community has shown their support by buying our optional subscription, VRChat Plus, which unlocks some enhancements and perks. VRC+ has been greatly successful, and has been instrumental in helping us expand via features like Regions. We plan on expanding VRC+ by enabling purchases on the Oculus platform, as well as allowing players to gift subscriptions to each other. We are so grateful to our community for their support!

I also find myself wondering about Facebook’s latest attempt at a social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, which many people expected to be launched by now, and which seems to be stuck in closed beta testing. I don’t regret not participating in Horizon by boycotting Facebook, not for one instant, but I do find the delay in launch perplexing. I have heard second-hand accounts that, while the in-world building tools are nice, there’s not a lot to do, and user moderation has been a problem area, despite Facebook’s surveillance attempts, which I mention in this blogpost. The longer it takes for Facebook to roll out Horizon, the more people wonder what’s really going on.

It just seems that Facebook can’t put a foot right these days. Even worse, the company itself doesn’t seem to know exactly what it is nowadays, as it lurches from market to market in an attempt to remain dominant. Shira Ovide of The New York Times wrote recently in an On Tech newsletter editorial:

This question might sound silly, but I’m serious: What is Facebook?

Did you know that Facebook has a dating service, online job listings, a version of Craigslist, a new collection of podcasts and live audio chat rooms, multiple copycats of Zoom, a section just for college students, two different spots for “TV” shows, a feature like TikTok (but bad) and software that office workers can use to communicate? On Tuesday, the company also outlined new developments in its efforts to get more businesses to sell merchandise directly inside Facebook and the company’s other apps.

If you knew that Facebook was doing all of this … gold star, I guess. You spend way too much time on the internet.

…The company’s constant tinkering raises the question: Is Facebook trying so hard because it’s excited about what’s next, or perhaps because, like its peers, it is no longer so adept at predicting and then leading digital revolutions?

(The entire On Tech column is well worth a read, by the way.)

Anyway, these are just some assorted musings about Facebook this lazy Saturday morning. As always, I’d love to hear your comments and perspectives! Feel free to join the burgeoning RyanSchultz.com Discord server, where well over 500 of us like-minded social VR/virtual world enthusiasts gather to discuss, debate, and argue about the ever-evolving metaverse and all the companies building it! Or just leave a comment on this blogpost, thanks!

Pandemic Diary, April 5th, 2021: So Close, So Close and Yet So Far

PLEASE NOTE: My blog is still on indefinite hiatus; I have made a single exception for this blogpost. After this, I will be going back on my self-imposed break from blogging.

My eyes adored you
Though I never laid a hand on you,
My eyes adored you
Like a million miles away from me you couldn’t see
How I adored you…
So close, so close and yet so far

My Eyes Adored You, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

Today is officially Day 386 since I began working in self-isolation from my apartment for my university library system. Since my last Pandemic Diary post, two significant things have occurred:

  1. On March 18th I received my first vaccine shot, and
  2. On March 22nd, I returned to my office at the University of Manitoba Libraries for the first time in over a year.

As someone who is older (age 57), and with several underlying health conditions which put me at risk of a severe, possibly even fatal, response to infection with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (I am severely overweight, plus I have asthma, hypertension, and type II diabetes), I was among the first Manitobans under the age of 60 to get vaccinated at my local pharmacy. I received the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, with a follow-up shot sometime in July.

I have been following the news reports of possible blood clots in a few people who have received the vaccine, and I am not worried; I know that the chance of me getting a blood clot from the AstraZenca vaccine is much lower than the chance of me getting a blood clot from COVID-19! As a science librarian, I trust the science behind the vaccines, and I am eagerly looking forward to getting my second dose.

Canadians are watching the U.S. roll out an aggressive vaccination campaign with envy. Canada is far, FAR behind the U.S., the U.K., and other countries in its COVID-19 vaccination campaign. Up here in Canada, we already have had serious outbreaks of variants of concern from the U.K. and Brazil in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, and it seems all but certain the we will experience a third wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths here in Manitoba soon, with a third lockdown (and we never really opened back up from the second lockdown imposed in early November!). We are, indeed, so close and yet so far. It is frustrating beyond belief!

As for my return to the office, I was sitting on the fence about taking an extended sick leave for treatment of depression, when my supervisor told me that the buildings on campus could now be staffed at 40% of regular occupancy (up from 25%). I leapt at the opportunity to be able to work outside my home, after over a year of working from my home, being stuck within the same four walls day after day! I am starting off with just one day a week in the office, but I do have the option of coming in more frequently than that (at least, until the third lockdown happens, and it will).

In fact, the mood improved immediately after spending just one day back in my office, chatting with the few coworkers who are here (masked and socially distanced chats, but still, actual face-to-face conversations!). I even wandered around the library, taking a few snaphots. My office looks much the same as when I left it over a year ago, in near-pristine condition which will not last very long:

My library is still closed to non-librarian faculty, non-Libraries staff, and all students. The library, usually a quiet place even when it was full of students, is now eerily silent:

And I finally brought my work Oculus Rift VR headset back into the office from my apartment, where I had taken it when the pandemic started in March 2020, and spent part of my day today setting it up again. I popped into AltspaceVR and Nature Treks VR, and of course Sansar, just to test that everything was working okay. Instead of having to install countless updates to my Sansar client which had occurred during my yearlong absence from the office, I simply deleted the program and reinstalled it from scratch from the Sansar website, and then I paid a visit to my world, Ryan’s Garden, and its animated carousel, still one of my most cherished virtual possessions!

Yes, I do still have an Oculus Rift headset, which I had originally purchased for my suspended research project. I have an Oculus account for it, and I have absolutely ZERO plans to set up an account on the Facebook social network for it! Good thing that I don’t need to make any account decisions for at least another two years, during which time I will probably spend some of my accumulated Travel & Expense funds to upgrade the Rift to a Valve Index, like I now have at home. This Rift is my final link to Facebook, and I am itching to get rid of it! (I have yet to come up with a new, replacement research project involving virtual reality and libraries, but I have a few ideas.)

Stay safe and stay healthy!