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Virtual Mark Zuckerberg showed me Facebook's new VR workplace

Horizon Workrooms, an Oculus Quest 2 VR software beta for meetings, launches Thursday. Facebook has been using it for remote meetings for months. Here's how it works.

I got to meet Mark Zuckerberg two days ago, during a meeting in a conference room along with a handful of other tech reporters. He talked about the metaverse and the future of work. That's not all that unusual. What was unusual is that the CEO of Facebook beamed into our demo session on a shaft of light -- and was a cartoon avatar. 

Did I mention we were all in VR in an imaginary conference room, where I was taking notes on a floating computer screen with my own ghostly hands? Welcome to Facebook's Horizon Workrooms.

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Facebook employees have been using Workrooms internally for the last six months, something Zuckerberg told me about when I spoke with him in May about how Facebook is expanding its VR visions, five years after the launch of the Oculus Rift. Now I got to try it out myself. As an office tool you can use on a wireless VR headset, it's pretty fascinating. But for Facebook, it's the doorway to a lot more.

Facebook wants its VR headsets to be about more than just games, to be instead a space where we're going to meet in virtual offices. Zuckerberg and his team see this as the future of remote work, not five or 10 years from now but now. That's why they're testing a beta version of Facebook's new Horizon Workrooms -- a free app for virtual meetings that will work with its Oculus Quest 2 VR headset and regular computers. 

"I think videoconferencing has taken us pretty far. But I don't know, I can just tell you that as we start planning to go back into the office, I'm not super excited about having most meetings be over video," Zuckerberg says. "What we're trying to move towards is a world where a lot of what we do is in here [in VR], and the people who can't be in here can be on video. So people can feel present that way if people aren't together in person physically." Zuckerberg sees it as an addition to video chat: a way to brainstorm, chat and collaborate.

As part of a presentation by Facebook Reality Labs VP Andrew Bosworth. Zuckerberg appeared, first in video chat on a virtual wall-screen in front of the group of reporters invited to get a look at Horizon Workrooms, and then embodying a 3D avatar beamed onto one of the office chairs as he sat with us to chat for a bit.

It was compelling. It was also weird. Zuckerberg's mouth animation stopped working at one point, and he had to drop off and come back. The software is still in development. Facebook's interconnected work tools are a work in progress.

Technically this app is the first piece in a larger metaverse puzzle for Facebook: The company aims to reinvent its definition of social media into 3D spaces, and Workrooms is a foot in the door on that strategy. 

It's also something familiar. With offices still disrupted and work from home still very much a thing as COVID-19 continues to affect our daily lives, there are plenty of companies aiming to reinvent remote work tools. In March, I had a holographic chat with Microsoft's Alex Kipman, demonstrating how Microsoft's work tools like its videoconferencing software Teams could evolve. There are already VR companies with office meeting tools, including Spatial, that offer rooms where cartoon-like avatars and Zoom-like video chats can mingle. Eventually, perhaps, these tools will blend into AR. I've tried prototypes of these ideas with AR glasses and headsets. There are even business-focused competitor products like the HTC Vive Focus 3. Facebook wants it to work on its $300 Oculus Quest 2 device, too.

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In meetings, people can see shared information, but personal computer screens are grayed out.

Facebook

For me, the wildest part was that the app maps to my actual desk, and the keyboard of my computer was able to project into the meeting room, along with my computer screen (which no one else could see but me, unless I chose to share it with others). It felt like a taste of mixed reality in VR. My hands reach out for my actual keyboard and touch my desk. In VR, I see the virtual versions of those things. It's like a blend of home and office.

Zuckerberg sees using real tools in VR as a key differentiator: a "fusion of the digital objects and the physical ones," as he puts it, indicating Facebook will keep pushing further in that territory. "One way or another, I think we're going to live in a mixed reality future," he says to me from across the virtual room where I'm using my real computer, and can feel my desk surface under my hands.

But also, it's a bridge to where a world of virtual and real things may blend even further, using whatever device you already have to connect. "I think a lot of people think about the metaverse as really tightly tied to VR. And we don't," he adds. "We think that virtual reality is one platform for accessing it, as augmented reality will be. But we also think that you're going to be able to jump into that from phones, or computers. And that's a concept that I think will just go across all these things."

Zuckerberg has already stated Facebook's next major mission is to become a "metaverse" company, which will involve knitting together more social tools into a still-in-progress platform it started calling Horizon two years ago. Workrooms is the first part of that strategy. 

"There's hanging out, there's entertainment ... and I do think work is going to be a third major pillar of how all this works," Zuckerberg says. "It's primarily a consumer thing."

But Zuckerberg doesn't see Workrooms as a push to enterprise tools, exactly. "I don't think that this suggests in any way that we're going to try to become an enterprise company," Zuckerberg said of the new work app. "But I do think that work is going to be one of the key use cases that people try to do in the metaverse." While web app invitees for video chats don't need to log into Facebook, the VR part of Workrooms, like the rest of Facebook's Oculus ecosystem, needs a Facebook account to use. 

Facebook's Bosworth says Horizon Workroom's tools have been in development for two years, since before the pandemic, and after extensive internal testing they're ready for the beta. 

Zuckerberg, sitting in cartoon avatar form across the room, also discussed something he said to me before: that virtual VR meetings can have a different impact on memory than flat, grid-based video Zooms and laptop chats. "Sometimes I have a hard time remembering what meeting something was set in," Zuckerberg says, "We remember things based off of these kinds of physical and spatial cues." He believes the spatial audio of meetings in VR helps. "It sort of helps us make memories, and it makes it feel more real."

I felt VR fatigue after an hour in the meeting: My eyes needed a break. I can't spend more than an hour at a time in VR, normally. But the time did fly by. And a day later, I remember Zuckerberg sitting across from me, and tech reporters all around me at our desk, and looking out the window at the artificial landscape of a hazy garden near water, mountains, buildings. I remember it as being a place I've visited. And my laptop came along for the ride, too.

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Certain keyboards can appear in VR, while the computer screen hovers above. 

Facebook

How it works

Horizon Workrooms runs on both the Oculus Quest 2, and on a computer (Windows 10 or Mac, with support for Apple's newer M1 chip-equipped Macs coming in the next month, according to Facebook). The Remote Desktop app links with the VR app, and casts my computer screen into my VR meeting. There are already VR apps that do this, and there are VR office meeting apps, too. But none have blended the two as well as Facebook Workrooms has.

You just have to get used to being a cartoon. VR can't capture our faces with cameras, so everything I did was shown through a cartoonish Oculus avatar, like a video game. I made my own avatar like me: plaid shirt, beard, glasses... roundish in form. That's how I looked to others. No one could see my real-life cargo shorts and untrimmed beard. Unlike in Zoom, I can move my head around. My hands, which are tracked with Facebook's Oculus Quest 2 headset cameras, can wave hi and point at things. Pinching my fingers, I can make a pointer that clicks and launches settings in the control panel. 

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There I am on the left, next to Peter Rubin and Devindra Hardawar.

Facebook

The craziest thing, though, is how I was able to bring my own desk and computer into the meeting. The app maps your actual desk location, and layers your VR desk on top. The app can also recognize certain keyboards, including the MacBook Air, and bring those onto the desk. My hands turn into ghostly overlays showing my real fingers with the headset cameras, so I can place my fingers over the right keys and really type. Facebook has been slowly rolling out support for typing on keyboards into Oculus Quest 2, and even recognizing desks and sofas as part of its VR-to-home-space mapping layout. I've worked in VR before, so I've gotten adjusted to the oddness of the experience.

Casting my computer screen into the meeting added the most compelling dimension. It looks like your computer is hovering right in front of your desk. I could take notes in Google Docs and Slack my colleagues. At least, until the computer connection crashed midway through (this is a beta, after all). Be prepared to do a little troubleshooting. For example, on my Windows PC, I had to adjust my graphics settings to use integrated graphics in order to get the connection to work.

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Horizon Workrooms can shift into a more classroom-like setting, facing a whiteboard. There I am looking up.

Facebook

Because it's all in VR, Horizon Workroom's layouts can change depending on the need, from a circular conference room table to rows of classroom-like desks. There's also a virtual whiteboard that anyone can write on or cast documents and images to. Facebook cleverly found a way to turn the Oculus controller into a whiteboard marker. You can flip the controller around and write on your actual physical desk, which then gets cast to the whiteboard on the wall.

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You can draw on your desk using your Oculus Touch controller. It can be cast to the whiteboard.

Facebook

There aren't any other hooked-in Facebook features in Workrooms yet. Messenger isn't there in-app, but that's also because Bosworth points out that the Quest 2 has Messenger notifications in the OS. That's the weird thing about VR: It's hard to figure out where the walls of one app end and the rest of the OS continues. It's something Facebook is likely to keep reimagining as VR starts bridging into AR.

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How video chat looks: non-VR users appear on a wall screen, similar to apps like Spatial.

Facebook

Where this could go next

Being able to literally access your computer while in VR feels like a big leap in multitasking, something that Facebook keeps dabbling in; on a PC in VR, you can already do this. And the Quest 2 added phone notifications support earlier this year. But according to Facebook's Bosworth, who was there with me in VR in Workrooms as we all sat around and chatted, there won't be a systemwide support for bringing up your computer screen yet on the Quest 2. 

"It is a really big compute challenge," Bosworth told me from across the table, in cartoon-Bosworth mode. "If you're looking at a big game, it's really occupying a huge amount of what the system is doing." Bosworth points to the Quest 2 blending more of the real world into VR through its cameras, something that's already happening, plus hand tracking, as the doorway for what's next. "That's obviously building towards a much richer mixed reality, augmented reality future over time. But we're still in the very, very early innings of that."

Facebook is supposedly launching its own smart glasses this year, but they won't include augmented reality yet. As the company figures out its larger AR strategy, the Quest 2 will continue to be the way the company will likely lean on experimental practical features like this. And, find a practical angle for VR beyond games.

"I think Quest has a lot of reasons to buy; I think we're trying to give it more excuses to buy," Bosworth says of the mission to find some useful angles to the Quest 2, saying that Facebook's post-acquisition goals for Oculus have been to make it "not just a cool gaming accessory ... but can do social, can do work, can do more things."

Will I use it again?

I've tried working in VR and meeting people in VR. The experiences vary: The feeling is definitely different than in Zoom. More artificial -- and also sometimes more real.

Meeting in a virtual conference room wasn't new to me. But what was totally new was bringing my computer in with me, along with my desk. To work on my keyboard, see my screen and feel my desk under my hand, even subtly, did make me feel more like I was there. Like immersive VR theater pieces I've tried years ago which mapped the real world to what I saw in VR, the experience can be uncanny.

Facebook aims to push further with this tech, bringing more devices into VR. Eventually recognizing more of the room around me, too. Today, a desk, my keyboard. What next? As VR headset cameras evolve and the technology blends into mixed reality -- and eventually AR headsets like Facebook intends -- the idea is to mix things further. Mixed reality is already here with Facebook's Workrooms, even if it is an early step.