Horizon Workrooms – Is VR Collaboration Ready for Primetime?

Horizon Workrooms is critical to Meta’s transition to a company focusing on virtual environments and the coming Metaverse. But Workrooms has yet to become a significant challenge to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other collaboration platforms. The Facebook account requirement and the low ownership rate of VR headsets have been obstacles to its adoption in enterprise and educational organizations.

This week, Meta finally removed some of the major stumbling blocks to using Workrooms. As Ian Hamilton notes in UpLoadVR,

Since launch in August 2021 Horizon Workrooms used a separate Workrooms account and team management system for logging into the service and managing access. This sign-in flow threw up roadblocks and caused confusion for people who wanted to join meetings across Quest 2 VR headsets and traditional video chat. The former required a Facebook account at the time, meaning in many instances people who wanted to use the service and its innovative features might be using the same email address to login to multiple accounts from the same company. Now, there’s just the Meta account to use for headset log-in or via a computer, with permission granted by admins to join specific Workrooms.

Meta’s Horizon Workrooms

Resolving the account is a major step for Workrooms. Now all you need is a Meta account which doesn’t have to be associated with a Facebook account. The former separate profiles for Horizon and Workrooms will have to be migrated to the new Meta account by November 2022.

But where the development gets interesting is that users without a Meta account can now be invited into Horizon Workrooms meetings. According to Meta,

If guest access is turned on for a workroom, members of the workroom can share a link for non-members to join meetings via video call. As a guest, you do not need to create a Meta account.

That doesn’t get you full VR access, but at least guests can be part of the session via video – it’s simply up to the administrator to enable it.

Workrooms VR Features

Like Zoom and other collaboration platforms, Horizon Workrooms allows users to gather in a virtual space with the usual assortment of features, including whiteboards, file sharing, chat, and other tools. The difference, of course, is that Meta’s platform is designed to be accessed through virtual reality. 

Here’s Meta’s short promo trailer from 2021.

Unlike Zoom and Microsoft Teams, Workroom offers a compelling list of features only available in VR:

  • Immersive hand tracking
  • Oculus Avatars with customization options
  • Spatial audio for surround sound
  • Mixed reality desk and keyboard tracking

That last point is where Meta – and every Metaverse collaboration solution – is headed. Essentially, you can bring your physical desk and keyboard that you use at home into the VR space. And Workrooms allows you to add other features into the VR environment so that you feel present in the room instead of remotely staring at a flat screen.

Of course, it isn’t perfect: Meta’s avatars are still only half-body avatars, heads and torsos without legs. That may change with Meta’s upcoming headset, which is due out this October. And as good as Workrooms is, there is still this overall feeling that you are in more a cartoon space than any deeply engaging virtual experience that mirrors real life.

We’ve yet to reach the level of a full digital twin of our work environments.

So while it’s good, there are still some significant non-account obstacles here. Besides the quality of the virtual environment, bandwidth will be an issue for some. And Meta’s new headset will not be consumer-priced like the Quest. At close to $1,000, it won’t see widespread distribution in education or nonprofit settings.

Is Workrooms a Match for Zoom and Teams?

Horizon Worlds now stakes its claim in the virtual collaboration space - but with Virtual Reality.

So is Workrooms a worthy contender for the virtual collaboration space? Meta’s recent improvements will make it much easier to use. And IT departments will no longer have to be concerned about Facebook privacy issues. However, in a recent review by Parmy Olson in the Washington Post, the platform still faced obstacles – even among companies that would be likely users. Not surprisingly, Meta uses it, but even here, there are limits.

One Facebook representative said they took the headsets off every 30 minutes in their weekly meetings to give their eyes and heads a break. Immersion has its limits.

In fact, numerous VR companies don’t even meet in virtual reality for work meetings, says Marshall Mosher, CEO of virtual-reality startup Vestigo.  They prefer Zoom, or even old-fashioned phone calls. It seems that VR’s real value for employers is using it to forge stronger relationships through fun and games, or training.

Parmy Olson notes that the consulting firm Accenture bought 60,000 Quest 2 VR headsets last year but doesn’t use Workrooms for everyday staff work. Instead, they’re using Microsoft’s AltspaceVR for new staff orientation and training. And the same holds for drugmaker AstraZeneca Plc which uses its Quest headsets for new-hire orientations. The companies that Meta sees as most likely to use Workrooms in VR are – not surprisingly – still on Zoom, Teams, Slack, and other platforms. Wearing a VR for extended periods is still a challenge; it’s just easier to be on Zoom, where even in a 2D environment, it’s good practice to take breaks between meetings. For now, VR is good for orientation exercises and other activities, but not mature enough to use as a virtual collaborative work platform.

Will Meta’s New Headset Help?

The next step in the evolution of Meta’s Horizon Workrooms will be the release of Meta’s new high-end HMD in October. Since it will likely include facial expressions and more detailed avatars, it could spur Workrooms’ adoption. But the headset’s weight will still be a challenge for extended activities in virtual environments. And its cost and management will have to be shouldered by corporations, making Zoom seem like the easier option.

Virtual reality is a powerful platform for immersive storytelling and workforce training, but spending all day in the Metaverse for work is still years down the road. The opportunities and challenges of using Workrooms highlight the profound challenges of making the Metaverse an everyday reality.