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.
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 avatars, Passthrough, 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.
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.