Facebook’s journey to make virtual reality a major step was long and circuitous, but despite mixed success in finding a broad audience, they managed to build some very good hardware along the way. What’s rather ironic is that while Facebook was able to perfect the hardware and operating system for its Oculus devices, things it had never done before, over the years it had more difficulty creating a good application for virtual reality.
The company released a series of virtual reality social apps over the years, and while each of them managed to do something right, none of them did anything significant enough to prevent a shutdown. Putting aside the fact that most virtual reality users don’t have many other friends who also own headsets of the style, the broader problem plaguing these social apps is that they never gave them much of a reason to use them. While watching 360-degree videos or playing board games with friends were interesting gimmicks, it took a long time for the company to understand that a dedicated “social” app doesn’t make much sense in the realm and that users didn’t investigate the purpose of a standalone social app, both in engaging experiences enhanced by social dynamics.
All this brings us to what Facebook showed off in a demo: a workplace app called Horizon Workrooms, which launched in open beta for Quest 2 users.
The app appears to be geared toward providing employees who work from home with the virtual reality sphere to collaborate within. Users can link their Mac or PC to Workrooms and live stream their desktop to the app, while Quest 2’s pass-through cameras allow users to type on their physical keyboard. Users can chat with each other as avatars and share photos and files or draw on a virtual whiteboard. It’s an application that would have had a more significant impact for the Quest 2 platform had it been released earlier in the pandemic, though it is addressing a problem that still looms over tech-savvy offices: finding technology solutions that aid meaningful collaboration in a remote environment.
Horizon Workrooms is not a social app per se, but the way it approaches social communication in virtual reality is more thoughtful than any other top social VR app Facebook has shipped. The spatial elements are less obvious and sophisticated than most virtual reality apps and simply add to an already excellent functional experience that, at times, felt more productive and engaging than a regular video call.
It all plays into CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent proclamation that Facebook is becoming a “metaverse company.” Now, what is metaverse? In Zuckerberg’s own words, “It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can think of it as an embedded Internet where you’re inside rather than just watching.” This certainly sounds like a pretty significant recalibration for Facebook, which generally has AR/VR as a completely separate entity from its suite of mobile apps. Desktop users and virtual reality users were effectively separated over the years.
In general, Facebook scaled Oculus as if it were creating the next smartphone, building its headset with a native app paradigm at its core. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s forward-thinking “metaverse” sounds a lot more like what Roblox was building to anything Facebook has shipped. Horizon Workrooms lives under the Horizon brand, which seems to be where Facebook’s future metaverse game takes root. Interestingly, the virtual reality social platform is still in closed beta after being announced nearly two years ago. If Facebook can ever see Horizon’s vision come to fruition, it could grow into a Roblox-like hub of user-created games, activities and groups that replaces the native mobile app dynamic with a more seamless social experience. The Workrooms polish is certainly a promising sign of where Facebook could be moving.