FACEBOOK has created a virtual reality OFFICE where you can meet up with colleagues, talk about work and even doodle on a whiteboard together.
I tried out the mind-blowing beginnings of Mark Zuckerberg’s “metaverse” – a digital world where we can live, work and play.
It’s called Horizon Workrooms, and it’s designed to be used with a VR headset.
Facebook sells its own headsets under the Oculus brand, and they’re increasingly cheap.
The idea is that you all hop into a virtual meeting with colleagues, all of whom are donning Zuckerberg’s goggles.
And suddenly you’re transported to a lush meeting room in what looks like the Swiss Alps – surrounded by moving, talking avatars of your workmates.
It’s extremely immersive, and it’s easy to see how this could be the new normal in five or 10 years.
But let’s start from the very beginning.
Entering the metaverse
To get full use out of the system, you need a few things.
First up is a Facebook account – it’s necessary for Oculus to work properly, for good or ill.
Then you need an Oculus headset, and the free Horizon Workrooms app.
I’m using the relatively cheap (and truly exceptional) Oculus Quest 2, which comes in at £299.
You’ll also need a computer to download Oculus Remote Desktop to – which works on both Windows and Mac.
I did it on Mac, and it was set up in seconds.
The Oculus Quest 2 is clever because as well as using the controllers, you can also navigate the virtual world with your hands – thanks to clever tracking tech.
And that’s how you’ll mostly be navigating Facebook Workrooms.
When you enter the Workroom, you’ll have a chance to set your real-world desk height – and map out its width.
Then you’ll choose what computer you’re using.
I chose my Apple MacBook Pro, selecting the 13-inch screen and Space Grey colour option.
As if by magic, it appears on my virtual desk in front of me – the exact right specification.
Better yet, if I move the MacBook Pro slightly in the real world, it shifts in the virtual world too.
And when I set my hands down to type on the keyboard, Oculus Passthrough lets me see my REAL hands typing on the virtual keyboard. Mind, blown.
So I check my in-app calendar and there’s a meeting waiting for me, because it’s synced up with the desktop version of Workrooms.
Friends in i-places
Instantly, I’m sitting in a conference room with other avatars bobbing next to me.
I talked to them, and they could talk to me. I could see they were using a computer, but couldn’t see what was on their screens. Privacy, check.
One by one, more users popped into the meeting – including Facebook’s VR boss Andrew Bosworth.
He told us that they’d been working on this “vision” for a couple of years, with a very high bar for quality. It shows.
“This is something we wanted to use internally for work, so it needed to be robust,” he told us.
Bosworth added: “We’re now using it regularly for meetings.”
The quality is mind-blowing.
Mouths move in time with speech.
And because the Oculus supports hand-tracking, people can make exact gestures – even counting out talking points on fingers.
The audio is particularly brilliant, because it’s tracked spatially.
If someone is speaking to your left, you’ll hear the sound exactly where it should be.
And if someone moves across the room, the audio will follow them.
At one point, a speaker turned away from me to talk – and their voice muffled in an eerily realistic way.
We also got to try out the whiteboard, which can be used in two ways.
You can access a small version on your virtual desk, which will affect the room’s whiteboard.
Or you can physically stand next to the proper whiteboard and draw on it using the Oculus controller – albeit held in reverse, like a giant pen.
It’s a brilliant feature, especially because it’s collaborative.
And the rooms are “permanent”, so you can come back later and the whiteboard scribbles will be intact – unless you choose to erase them.
We also had some non-Oculus users join the call, and they appeared on a screen just like a regular Zoom-style video chat would show up.
You can host up to 16 participants in the room, or up to 50 including video-chatters.
There’s also a virtual display for screen-sharing, so you can do proper presentations in the virtual world.
It’s truly an incredible feat of VR design.
I was constantly amazed by how natural it felt to work in a VR space.
And every few minutes, you think of another brilliant way this tech could be used.
Businesses using it to make remote work more socialable is the obvious one.
But friends could definitely use it to hang out (though Facebook is working on other apps better suited to that).
Schools could use this – imagine kids raising their virtual hands, and going up to the front of the class to show their working on a whiteboard they can all see…from home.
You could attend virtual speeches, have a virtual dinner with distant family members, or just work a lovely virtual office that’s better than your dimly lit box-room at home.
What’s most exciting is that this is just the beginning.
VR is still in very early stages, but already Horizon Workrooms is wildly compelling.
I’m not convinced we’re all going to be strapping into the Oculus daily any time soon – but it’s easy to see something like these being more commonplace across society over the next decade.
And as Zuckerberg’s grand vision of a metaverse grows, so too will the pull to join in.
Apps like Facebook used to be a choice – and now social media is a must for many.
You can certainly imagine when VR will have a similar must-have draw as smartphones, apps and even the internet today.
Dystopian risks abound, but I’m mildly optimistic that more good will come from VR than evil.
And for what it’s worth, I wrote this article from the metaverse…
- Oculus Quest 2 at Facebook for £299 – buy here
Horizon Workrooms is free to download on Oculus Quest 2 right now in beta.
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