Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms Announces a Collaboration with Zoom

Facebook’s social VR platform for business, Horizon Workrooms (which I wrote about previously here) has announced that they will release a new feature next year: integration with Zoom.

In the official announcement, Facebook stated:

We recently launched Horizon Workrooms on Oculus Quest 2. It’s a new way to collaborate remotely across the world, through the power of virtual reality. And today, we’re excited to announce we’re teaming up with Zoom to integrate Workrooms even more deeply into your everyday workflows, starting next year.

Regardless of physical distance, people can meet up inside Workrooms and feel like they’re in the same room together. With immersive features like avatars and 3D spatial audio, and the ability to access your desktop computer and keyboard seamlessly from VR, Workrooms is designed to improve your team’s ability to collaborate, communicate, and connect. And starting next year, we’ll be taking Workrooms to the next level, letting you easily join Zoom Meetings and use Zoom Whiteboard all from within VR—we’re showing a sneak peek of what it could look like today at Zoomtopia, which you can check out here.

Facebook has bottomless pockets of money (mostly raised by strip-mining your personal data and selling it to advertisers), and it only makes sense that the company will use that income to forge alliances with other well-positioned companies such as Zoom (which I have no doubt profited greatly from the coronavirus pandemic).

REMIO: A Brief Introduction to a Full-Service Social VR Platform

In the early days of my blog, I used to have to hunt out social VR platforms to write about. But now that my blog has been around for a little over four years, I am sometimes approached by metaverse companies who wish me to visit and/or write about their platforms. REMIO is one such company.

REMIO is a YARTVRA (Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality Application), but it’s a little bit different from the social VR platforms which I have covered to date on this blog.

REMIO actually offers a full-service concierge-style package to businesses, including shipping standalone VR headsets to each member of the work team that you want to bring together in virtual reality:

We help distributed teams maintain a great culture with immersive team-building activities and collaboration tools. All in VR. ​

• Pre-configured standalone VR headsets.
• Delivered to each team member.
• Hosted fun team events in VR.
• Immersive collaboration & productivity tools.​
• We take care of all the scheduling, logistics, and shipping.

Actually, I’m a little surprised that nobody has come up with this idea before!

If you don’t want to join in using a VR headset, you can also connect via a web browser on your desktop computer (you can check it out for yourself here; it takes a few seconds to load).

There’s a handy menu on the right-hand side of the REMIO web client to take you to various prebuilt environments, including a conference room, a paintball arena, even a yoga room!

Here’s a one-minute YouTube video showing some of these environments:

To have a company offer a service where they take care of all the scheduling, logistics, shipping, and onboarding, so that companies can simply focus on corporate events and teambuilding exercises, is actually a pretty genius idea! Here’s a look at their pricing page, which offers one-off, monthly, and annual prices for the service:

And, if you already have headsets, there are more cost-effective options (including a free one for up to 20 users on a public server):

For further information about REMIO, please peruse their website, join their Discord, or follow them on social media: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

So I will be adding REMIO to my popular, ever-expanding comprehensive list of social VR and virtual worlds (and yes, yes I know, I have been promising to reorganize and recategorize it for quite some time now, but the pandemic has kind of thrown a monkeywrench into those plans…please bear with me).

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.

Taking a Second Look at Arthur

It’s been a little over a year since I first wrote about Arthur, one of the social VR products that I like to lump togather under the acronym YARTVRA, which stands for Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality Application (and which I am still trying, and still failing rather spectacularly, to popularize). *sigh* Work with me, people!

The new rallying cry of the remote online workplace: YARTVRA!

Anyways, Arthur makes an appearance in a December 8th article by WIRED, titled VR meetings are weird, but they beat our current reality, by Lauren Goode, who writes:

The press briefing was one of a few ever to occur in VR*, a spokesperson for this new app claimed. It’s called Arthur, and part of the pitch is that it’s going to catapult VR for work into the mainstream, that meetings and collaboration sessions and deskside briefings will become… headset briefings.

The app launched on December 8, but it’s been in development for four years. The company behind it, also named Arthur, is headquartered in San Mateo, California, with employees scattered around the globe. It has secured seed funding from VC firm Draper Associates, and it lists the United Nations, Societé General, and a large automaker as its beta testers.

Taking a meeting in Arthur requires a literal suspension of reality. You exist only from the waist up (hey, just like Zoom!), and your shirtsleeves taper off to reveal blue computer arms, which move according to how you move the Oculus Quest controllers in your hands. Your digital eyes are obscured by Matrix-style glasses, and a headset microphone covers your virtual mouth. This is because the technology can’t yet mimic facial expressions in VR, and “it’s better than looking at dead eyes,” says Arthur founder Christoph Fleischmann. My avatar looked nothing like me except that it had dark brown hair.

Lauren was kind enough to share a picture of what her avatar in Arthur looks like:

Reporter Lauren Goode’s avatar in Arthur (image source: WIRED)

Holy Toledo! I’m sorry, but if you expect me and my coworkers to shell out for VR headsets in order to feel more immersive at our virtual business meetings, you’re going to have to do better than this. These are among the butt-ugliest avatars I have seen in any social VR platform or virtual world—and trust me, I have seen them all in the three years I have been writing this blog. (As a matter of fact, there are a few I wish I could unsee. Is there such a thing as YARTVRA PTSD?)

These avatars still look the same as they do when I wrote about them 13 months ago:

Frankly, Arthur’s avatars leave a lot to be desired. To avoid having to rig eye movements, the avatars all wear black sunglasses like Corey Hart (“I wear my sunglasses at night…”). To avoid having to rig the mouth, they all wear wraparound black microphones that cover the avatars’ mouths so closely, they look as if they are being gagged! And the avatars’ arms fade out to controllers instead of hands. The avatars look extremely off-putting, and it’s a definite strike against Arthur.

Now, to be fair, there have been a few developments since then. Arthur now supports the Oculus Quest 2 wireless headset according to the article (although a keyword search for “Arthur” pulls nothing up in the Oculus Store). The WIRED article says that Arthur launched on December 8th, 2020, but the Arthur website only talks about joining a waiting list for the product.

There’s the usual YARTVRA jabber on the Arthur website about enhanced productivity:

Virtual Real(i)ty

Arthur is a virtual office space that enables you and your team to meet, collaborate and manage your work. It empowers you to maximize your level of remote productivity and free yourself from geographic and physical constraints…

Arthur is intuitive to use and its functionalities aim at maximizing productivity for you and your team. Thanks to automated onboarding guides, it takes only very little time to be productive with Arthur – by which time you can enjoy a vast array of features, including:

• Presentations
• Whiteboards
• File Management
• 3D Objects

I particularly rolled my eyes at what appears to be an animated GIF in the bottom right hand corner of this image (although I cannot copy and paste it here to show you on the blog; you’ll have to go over to the Arthur website to view it). Resizing and rotating what look like 2003-era Second Life prims in social VR!!?! Oh yeah, businesses are really going to use that feature to get that vital point across to a potential sales client, aren’t they?

Sorry, it’s 4:00 a.m., I have insomnia, and I am feeling particularly cranky (Ryan, sweetheart, step away from the keyboard…).

But this looks absolutely dreadful, especially compared with much more fully-featured platforms, with far better-looking avatars. Avatars with eyes. Avatars with actual hands. Avatars whose mouths move. Platforms which actually already have working solutions, instead of their founder saying inane things like “the technology can’t yet mimic facial expressions in VR, and it’s better than looking at dead eyes“.

Sweet minty Jesus.

To name but one example, Sinespace’s corporate/conference/educational platform Breakroom can run circles around Arthur. For example, how about an avatar facial driver using nothing but your webcam?

You say that’s unfair because you can’t use a webcam in a VR headset? OK, then. Social VR platform NeosVR recently demonstrated full mouth tracking on their avatars. (And NeosVR can do everything you mention in Arthur’s feature list above, plus pile a whole bunch of envelope-pushing innovations on top of that.)

Give me some so-called “dead eyes” instead of these Men in Black sunglasses! Frankly, I’d rather have myself seen in Zoom, Cisco Webex, or Microsoft Teams with a severe case of “COVID-19 hair” and a ketchup stain on my shirt, than represent myself with these creepy-looking, budget-basement, cookie-cutter avatars.

Seriously? SERIOUSLY?!?? (image source: WIRED)

If you wish to learn more about Arthur, you can visit their website, or follow them on social media: Twitter or LinkedIn.

Arthur is already on my listing of social VR/virtual worlds, which I am still in the process of reorganizing and categorizing (it’s taking me a lot longer than I expected).


*raised eyebrow