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FB’s Attempt at VR Workspaces

Facebook's latest attempt to bring people together in an increasingly digital world

VR workspace: gimmick or progress?

Last week, Facebook announced Horizon Workspaces, a virtual meeting space where people can collaborate together in a digital environment that attempts to replicate in-person meetings.

Horizon Workspaces is merely the latest of many VR experiences that FB has released since the $2B acquisition of Oculus in 2014. In 2016, Oculus announced Oculus Rooms where friends could come together and watch videos or play games in a virtual room (Oculus). Facebook opened this concept to an even broader set of environments (drawing, collaboration, etc) with the announcement of Spaces in 2017 (Facebook). This application also introduced more customizable avatars and enabled mixed-reality interaction with Facebook features. Facebook expanded on creating mixed-reality experiences even further with the introduction of Venues, which enabled users to experience live real world experiences such as concerts or sporting events alongside other Oculus users.

Both Rooms and Spaces were shut down in October 2019 in preparation for Facebook Horizon (BBC). Venues still exists as a standalone application. We have four observations on this latest Workspaces VR release from FB:

1) Not that special: Due to the rise of remote work globally, this is ideal timing for FB to release Horizon Workspaces. However, the Horizon platform was announced almost two years ago (trailer here) and this latest release with Horizon Workspaces has a feature set that feels like a copy of many of its competitors. For example, while Workspaces boasts features such as integration of real-world hardware devices, spatial audio, flexible collaborative working tools (whiteboard, meeting notes, file sharing, calendar integration, chat), environment customization, and hand tracking; many of these features are already offered by other collaborative working VR applications such as Spatial, Glue, Connec2, Immersed and Dream (here are 34 other apps for remote work in VR) - none of which were built by Facebook.

2) Not better than Zoom: In addition to the lack of differentiation, the use cases seem extremely limited. While Workspaces allows for PC users to join via video conference, in order to achieve a VR working experience, a majority of those participating in the meeting will need to have a headset (the Quest 2 currently retails at $299). Session durations are also limited compared to real-life due to the “vergence-accommodation conflict”, a biological issue that occurs when the brain is confused by the distance of objects due to a 3D environment which causes headaches, fatigue, and/or nausea. Facebook Reality Labs head, Andrew Bosworth, himself has to take breaks after about an hour because he gets too hot inside the headset (Washington Post).

3) Not able to read an avatar: In addition to the financial and physical barriers to entry, the user experience is disjointed and disorienting. Instead of seeing faces of coworkers that you know and recognize, you only see avatars who are only able to control their hand movements (an interesting piece on avatar-based identities: Me Myself, and my Multiple Avatars). Without the additional contextualization of non-verbal communication, it seems pointless to have the false feeling that you are in the same room as someone. In short, why not just use Zoom?

Despite our skepticism, FB is making a large effort towards building their own VR platform in the metaverse. This is a small step in that direction that will likely not see broad adoption by even the Oculus Quest user base (much less the broader FB user base). The tagline of Facebook Horizon is "Explore. Play. Create. Together", which points to foundational pillars of community, user-generated content creation, and immersive experiences.

4) This is about R&D: With Workspaces, the Oculus team will likely try to test out what features enable the greatest feelings of connectivity and collaboration (e.g. eye and mouth tracking, “walking”, emotes, immersive sound). However, refinement of the hand tracking tool and the integration of real-world hardware will be critical in enabling easy, intuitive content creation as they showed in their Facebook Horizon trailer (only 115k views). In short, this workspace endeavor is not going to work and is an R&D playground for FB's VR team to analyze more human interactions in VR.

Takeaways: Horizon Workspaces is another application for FB to showcase and test their latest and greatest advancements in VR technology. However, this essentially boils down to 1) limited demand for this, 2) intense competition in the market already, and 3) it’s not better than using Zoom. This might change in the future, but Facebook’s VR tech has a long way to go (at least 3 years away) before we all start setting up VR meeting rooms in our calendar invites. In the meantime, Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams have this market on lockdown.