We’ve heard a great deal about what the metaverse is, or will one day be, over the past year. But there are already a number of ways to engage with this potentially world-changing technology today. Horizon Workrooms is Meta’s (formerly Facebook) virtual office and meeting room environment, designed as the first step towards building an “enterprise metaverse” where teams can collaborate and work together in immersive, virtual reality (VR) environments.
But what is it actually like to use, and what can you do there? In this post, I take a look at the features and functionality that are available through this early attempt at creating a metaverse working environment. Before we start, I’ll say that it will probably come as no surprise to hear that not every company is ready to jump feet-first into Meta’s vision for the future of work. And it’s equally true that Meta isn’t ready for every company to jump onto its platform, either. But if you’re interested in getting a sneak peek at one vision of how we may be working and collaborating in the near future, then read on.
What is Horizon and Workrooms?
The simplest way to describe it is that Horizon is Facebook’s (as the company was called when it first launched) first attempt at creating a VR metaverse environment based around the Oculus range of headsets. When Facebook purchased the headset maker way back in 2014, it was seen as the first indication that it considered VR to be the future of social media.
If the metaverse concept is built around the idea that we will be able to do everything we can do in the real world, but online, on one platform, then Workrooms is where we will go to do our jobs. While most of the Horizon platform is currently focused on socializing, events and gaming, Workrooms is where Mark Zuckerberg hopes we will go when it’s time to get our heads down and do some work.
Another fundamental idea behind the metaverse concept is that we will move smoothly from one activity to another within the same platform. This means that whether we are working in Workrooms or taking in a music or comedy show in one of the other areas of Horizon, we will be represented by our Meta avatar and will navigate the experience with similar environmental rules and user interfaces.
Having said that, Meta has stated that it plans to soon allow users to segment their online identity between work and play – so we will, for example, be able to identify ourselves by a different user name and potentially different avatar depending on what activities we are taking part in.
How does it work?
The first thing to note is that Meta’s Horizon Workrooms is very much a "work in progress," with many of the features still under development or not implemented in a final form. In other words, if it’s still around in five years’ time – which is heavily dependent, I would assume, on how many businesses decide to work with it now – it will probably look and act completely differently than it does today.
What do I need to use Workrooms?
To use most of the functionality in Workrooms you will need a Meta Quest 2 VR headset, although some basic functionality, such as joining video calls, is now available on desktop. Meta has said that users will be able to access Workrooms (and Horizon) through mobile and desktop clients sometime soon.
You will also need a Meta account – originally, users were required to log in through a Facebook account, but the new Meta accounts launched this summer mean we can now keep our Facebook data and our VR (including Workrooms) data entirely separate, which of course is a good thing from a privacy and data protection point of view.
If you have all of that, all that’s left is to log into your Meta account on your Quest 2 headset, download the Workrooms app and jump in.
What can I do there?
Within the Workrooms environment, everyone gets a personal virtual office, where they can access their actual real-world computer within a VR environment using the Meta Quest Remote Desktop app.
They can also host and join virtual meetings, by inviting other users to form groups. Within meetings, users can share their computer screens with each other – to share presentations or any projects they are working on, for example. They can also collaborate via a persistent virtual whiteboard. This means that when users leave the meeting room and return to it, they will find it as they left it unless the host deletes it.
It's also possible to arrange and schedule meetings via familiar office tools like Microsoft Outlook and Google Calendar and to host people without VR headsets in meetings by inviting them to log in through a web app.
Why should I use Horizon Workrooms?
To many, this is probably the big question.
Firstly, the immersive nature of VR is designed to help teams that work remotely from each other to communicate and collaborate more effectively than is possible using traditional remote working tools, such as video conferencing.
VR headset tracking features mean that avatars are able to express themselves with hand movements, body language, and facial expressions. Even a simple factor, such as the ability to see who someone is looking at while they are talking in a group environment, makes the conversation more immersive. As a result, the theory goes working as a team on collaborative projects becomes more intuitive and productive.
However, there are certainly downsides. Critics have pointed out that the graphical environments currently used in most metaverse platforms, Workrooms included, are not exactly sophisticated. Currently, they lag far behind the state-of-the-art in computer graphics, which users may be used to experiencing in video games or movies. This can certainly have the effect of dampening the immersiveness. It can also be impractical and uncomfortable to expect people to work for lengthy periods of time with large and fairly weighty plastic headsets strapped to their faces. However, headsets are evolving fast, and within a decade, I expect most of them to be as comfortable as wearing a pair of glasses.
Taking everything into consideration, I would say that all of this means that Horizon Workrooms is certainly not for everybody or for every organization right now.
Those most likely to benefit are those with a real and defined need, in line with their core business objectives, for enabling remote, collaborative working.
Looking beyond that, it may simply be that you are interested in preparing yourself, your team, or your organization for the future of work. As a way of researching what work might be like in five or ten years’ time, tools like Workrooms provide a fascinating glimpse into one possible version of the future. If you want to be prepared, then now is certainly a good time to start familiarizing yourself with the tools, technologies, and principles of the metaverse – even if it probably isn’t quite time for most of us to move our offices there full-time, just yet.