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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Does Meta’s Horizon Workrooms Deliver? Customers Say Yes … and No

In one of his first few VR meetings inside Meta’s Horizon Workrooms in December 2021, Eric Schudiske, the 48-year-old CEO of the tech-focused agency s2s Public Relations, showed his age. Speaking to his five-person team from a virtual conference room with a digitally rendered deer head on the wall and a view of a foggy evergreen forest, he was the sartorially backdated Gen Xer whose legless avatar showed up wearing a necktie. 

He’s since adopted a looser alter ego, as I observe in a recent internal Workrooms team meeting he invited me to join. Swiveling his chair towards a Zoom-like projection of my face on a curved screen hovering in the room, Schudiske touts a client’s upcoming grant meeting with Bill Gates—a “monocle and smoking jacket” affair, he calls it sardonically. Around a half-moon-shaped table, several blank-faced avatars shake their shoulders in apparent laughter. 

“Just hanging out with Bill Gates,” another staffer pipes in mid-sentence. This interruption reads differently than one on a typical video call. With Workroom’s distance and directionally modeled spatial audio, you can interject without the risk of inadvertently hijacking someone’s soliloquy. 

It’s one of the immersive mixed-reality features that Mike LeBeau, product management director for Workrooms, claims has taken Meta’s VR business offering to a key inflection point. It is now being beta tested by users at organizations such as NASA, PwC, automation software company The Bot Platform, and surgical training platform Osso VR. 

At many firms, Workrooms is being used to translate the kind of real-world “social presence” remote workers have missed in Hollywood Squares-style videoconferences to virtual conference rooms. Strapped into Quest 2 headsets that retail for about $400, or the more optically rich and expensive Quest Pro headsets (which cost $1,500), teams can conduct meetings, give presentations, host design reviews, and hold drop-in coworking hours—all while seemingly inhabiting the same room.

Meta’s vision of the metaverse is starting to provide a “very tangible experience, and more important, for a very tangible utilitarian need, which is better remote work,” LeBeau says. 

The Tech Is Clunky, but More Affordable Than Ever 

Between 2019 and 2022, Meta pumped $36 billion into Reality Labs, which includes its metaverse and VR businesses. The venture saw a $30.7 billion loss over the same period. Now reports have emerged of a 13 percent workforce reduction, plunging stock valuedeclining ad revenue, and perhaps most worryingly, shrinking monthly active users inside Meta’s Horizon Worlds, the company’s signature VR social offering, which fell from around 300,000 to 200,000 users over the course of the year. Some skeptics are wondering whether Zoomed-out knowledge workers of the world want headsets to have weekly check-ins, scan spreadsheets, and exchange virtual high-fives and peace signs with their animated colleagues.

“You can convince people to go into VR to play Star Wars and Batman,” said Brian Penny, a media strategist at ZEITG3IST, a digital marketing agency based in New York. “But you sincerely think people will spend $400 on a headset so they can spend their lives in an even duller, drabber, and more boring office than they already go to?”

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It’s a rhetorical question, but LeBeau’s statements when we met in Workrooms for an interview several weeks ago suggest he objects to the premise. For one thing, people don’t spend their lives in VR—typically sessions last 15 minutes to an hour, rarely more than two, he says. The cost is on average less than many smartphones, having come down considerably since the first-generation Oculus Rift debuted in 2016 for $600

And although LeBeau declines to share specific figures, he says it helps retention among remote teams who want to talk through problems together, seemingly face to face. Updates planned for 2023 will make Workrooms more attractive to hybrid teams, he says. These include an option to view 3D models and a mixed reality experience, known as the Magic Room, which will let on-site and remote workers collaborate in the same shared space. Integrations with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Windows are also on the way in 2023.

Early testers have mixed views as to whether the offering is ready for prime time. Trevor Ainge, a media and content specialist at s2s, says the first-person perspective of Workrooms—the feeling of occupying the same space as one’s colleagues and having to physically turn your body to meet someone’s gaze—is a marked improvement over Zoom or WebEX. 

“One of the things I struggled with, in particular, is the performative aspect of communication when you're looking at a screen and seeing yourself, and Workrooms absolutely squashes that for me,” Ainge says. “I find it much more natural to connect.” 

Others are less convinced. “The thing that you're missing is the emotional part, because nobody recognizes your face,” said Sergey Toporov, a London-based partner at the investment firm LETA Capital, which trialed the software this past summer. “They have a pretty good lip-sync feature that looks natural when you're talking, but when you stop talking, you start to smile a little bit, which is weird.” 

The virtual blackboard has also drawn complaints from early testers. While s2s plans to continue using the software, LETA Capital dropped it after finding users couldn’t interact with financial models in Google Sheets, while they were at the virtual blackboard. The digitally rendered board, which must be set up before entering Workrooms, can be written on by flipping one of the two Quest controllers upside down and using it like a pen. But anything you write on the board, or the sticky notes you can attach to it, are just overlays; they don’t alter the native file being displayed. 

“Your first movement is to take your finger, or take your Oculus controller, and put something in the cell,” Toporov says. “But, in fact, you have to return to your laptop, even if you see the picture, and use your keyboard to change the value.”

Typing in Workrooms can be a bit of an adventure, too, says Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University, who trialed Workrooms with graduate students in his Measuring Social class. 

“I don’t remember what the string of text was, but imagine the worst autocorrect ever. It was all crazy and blurred,” he says. As a workaround, Lightman ended up removing the headset to type notes on the Meta Remote Desktop App using his physical keyboard.  

Before any work can get done, there’s the rather laborious process of charging the headset (the battery takes about two and a half hours to charge and lasts roughly that long), connecting the headset to a Meta Quest smartphone app, creating an account, and going through a lengthy series of authentifications. To avoid crashing into a nearby wall or armchair, users also need to set up a laser-like 3D point cloud called a Guardian that appears when they’re close to preestablished room boundaries. All this begs the question as to whether the investment is worth it for a 30-minute or hour-long meeting, when other videoconference platforms allow users to enter without an account in matter of clicks. 

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Chris Mattmann, chief technology and innovation officer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who praises Workrooms as a more equitable meeting tool than videoconferences, acknowledges that getting new users up and running takes time. He says the lab has set up a 48- to 72-hour service to onboard senior executives, and it even provides self-serve policy and access control instructions for software engineers—NASA software engineers, generally not technological slouches. The Innovation division, Mattmann's 100-strong team, spends roughly two to four hours a week, or up to 10 percent of their time, in Workrooms’ meetings, which he says is the best VR meeting app for presentations. 

Workrooms, though, is only one piece of a broader effort under Mattmann to improve the effectiveness of meetings for the roughly 2,000 of the laboratory’s 7,000 employees who work remotely, many of whom have moved out of Los Angeles during the pandemic and do not plan to return. Known as Welcome to Our Metaverse, the project is creating 3D digital twins of iconic labs and auditoriums—now numbering about 30 spaces—using Apple iPads with built-in lidar (laser imaging, detection, and ranging) scanners. These images are imported to free-form VR apps such as Spatial or Glue, where they are rendered as photorealistic 3D environments that can be entered virtually. Horizon Workrooms does not currently allow such customized room creation, but Mattmann says Meta is building this capability—and such hyper-realism may be important to the app’s long-term competitiveness.

To Make It Better, Meta Needs Your Face 

LeBeau admits there is a way to go before “the magic of VR” is fully unleashed, but he says Workrooms has effectively solved many of the early obstacles to VR‘s application in the office—cumbersome sensor-tracking setups, user dizziness, and the ability to use a computer to input text and share screens while inside a headset. 

The recently released Quest Pro, which offers built-in eye-tracking and face-detection features, promises to improve the emotional expressiveness of avatars, he tells me. During our interview, he arched his eyebrows and gazed at me piercingly through his Quest Pro headset.

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“Being able to see someone's actual facial expressions, whether they're looking skeptical or surprised, those are the kind of things that really enrich the meeting experience so that you can pick up on the subtle nonverbal cues that people make,” he says.

Still, the higher price of the Quest 2 may be prohibitive for many companies, and choosing to have the device use eye-tracking sensors and somewhat cryptic “Natural Facial Expressions” technology to “analyze images of your eyes and face in real time,” may be a bridge too far for users concerned about their privacy. 

The spokesperson assured me that “these images are deleted after processing and never leave the Meta Quest Pro headset.” Even if true, the future uses of headset data remain unclear. Nick Roseth, chief explorer at XPLR Design, cautions that VR studies on eye-tracking point to the power of the technology as a surveillance tool to decipher users’ emotional states. “The eyes are the window to your soul,” he says. “They’re wiring tech deeper into us, with algorithms that use pupil dilation, gaze direction, and how long we look at things” to understand visual attention and behavior. 

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In its latest iteration, Workrooms offers avatars customizable skin tones, nose piercings, and bindis; sound-dampened breakout rooms; a Remote Desktop App that can blow out a 13-inch laptop screen into a nearly 180-degree view of three gigantic screens; a Passthrough window for viewing the real world; and perhaps most astoundingly, a digitally rendered personal office configured to the dimensions of a worker’s physical desk. 

“That might seem like a small thing. But, actually, what it allows us to do is really anchor the whole experience in a familiar location for you where you do your work,” LeBeau says.

The desk setup is customizable. Users at any desk can trace the boundaries of their workspace with Quest controllers before entering Workrooms. At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where about 800 of the lab’s 7,000 employees use Quest 2 headsets, Mattmann says it has been relatively easy for staff to configure theses devices to their workstations and access Workrooms at home or on-site. 

“People that are separated by great geographic distance but want to work together, this is the way,” Mattmann says. “It doesn't make sense to jump on a private jet to go see someone in Taiwan or wherever, when you can see them in practically the same environment through one of these headsets in a very realistic way.”

If You Feel Dizzy, You’ve Been There Too Long

By placing users in a default seated position with limited locomotion (in Workrooms, you’re not racing a bobsled or riding a roller coaster, you’re mostly at a desk, doing desk things), the design may also help limit the risk of nausea afflicting at least 5 percent of VR users. Researchers have compared cybersickness in VR, which can last for hours after exposure, to the feeling of being hungover after drinking too much alcohol.  

Kay Stanney, CEO and founder of Design Interactive, who has researched virtual reality and immersive training technology for decades, says several theories point to the physiologic mismatch between what the eye is seeing and vestibular cues in the inner ear that signal to the brain that the body is rotating or accelerating. 

The majority of users who spoke to WIRED say motion sickness is largely a nonissue. Jessica McNellis, a media relations manager at s2s, who experiences dizziness and mild nausea in Workrooms after 30 minutes in typically hour-long meetings, says taking short breaks eliminates these symptoms. “If I can see something in the real world by peeking out from under the nosepiece, that tends to alleviate it a bit; it gives you a frame of reference in the real world.” 

The position of the headset and adjustable-width lenses is also important to the quality of the experience and can affect resolution clarity, Mattmann says. Eyeglass wearers should use the plastic spacer provided with the headset, or upgrade to prescription lenses (for less than $100), and for heavy users, replacing the off-the-shelf elastic headband with a counterbalanced battery backup device is wise. 

For Meta, the bigger obstacle to widespread adoption of VR applications may be the limitations of the hardware in social applications like Horizon Worlds as immersive environments become more kinetic and gamelike. Screen refresh rates have improved considerably in recent years (the Quest II is capable of a rate of 120 Hz), but latency and optical resolution on consumer-grade headsets, such as the Quest, according to Stanney, are roughly the same as expensive $40,000 engineering models she tested 30 years ago. 

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Particularly concerning is the issue of interpupillary distance. Because consumer headsets were largely modeled on gamers, who historically tended to be male, the lens spacing on many models is not well designed for the anthropometrics of women’s faces. Instead of converging on distant objects, the pupils diverge in a way that can cause physiological strain and nausea, Stanney says, citing as evidence an article commissioned by the American aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin Corporation called “Virtual Reality Is Sexist: But It Does Not Have to Be.” 

For s2s, though, that scenario has yet to openly play out. Schudiske, who purchased the Quest 2 headsets more than a year ago as a holiday present for his employees, says he envisioned them as “a novel endeavor that never turned into a business necessity.” He has been proven wrong.

“You accept a certain level of vulnerability when you walk into VR, and I think you're all accepting that as a group,” Schudiske says. He’s seen arms disappear as hand-tracking sensors struggle to interpret his colleague’s movements. He’s watched avatars turn gray and slouch their heads when employees lose connectivity—an occurrence that happened more than once during my call with LeBeau. And yet, those glitches may be part of the appeal. 

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