For those who don’t think Zoom meetings are a good enough substitute for the real thing, Facebook has another idea: a virtual reality app that lets you and your coworkers feel like you’re sitting around a table in a conference room. On Thursday, Facebook (FB) unveiled Horizon Workrooms, a free app for users of its Oculus Quest 2 headset, a device that starts at $299. The app stands out as the company’s most ambitious effort yet to enable groups to socialize in VR and move the still niche medium beyond entertainment uses such as gaming.
Workrooms allow up to 16 VR headset users to meet in a virtual conference room, with each of them represented by a customizable cartoon-like avatar that appears as just an upper-body floating slightly above a virtual chair at a table. The app supports up to 50 participants in a single meeting, with the rest able to join as video callers who appear in a grid-like flat screen inside the virtual meeting room.
Headset-wearing meeting participants can use their actual fingers and hands to gesticulate in VR, and their avatars’ mouths appear to move in lifelike ways while they speak. A virtual whiteboard lets people share pictures or make presentations.”The pandemic in the last 18 months has only given us greater confidence in the importance of this as a technology,” Andrew Bosworth, VP of Facebook Reality Labs, said while addressing a (virtual) room of about a dozen people on Tuesday. He said Facebook has been using the app internally for about a year.
It’s not the first time Facebook and its subsidiary Oculus have tried to popularize social interaction via VR. The company launched virtual-hangout apps Oculus Rooms and Facebook Spaces in 2016 and 2017, respectively, which let small groups of users gather in VR. The company shut down both VR apps in October 2019, however. Instead, it announced a virtual social world called Horizon, which was set to be released in 2020. Horizon has yet to appear for most users and Facebook confirmed this week that the app remains in a private beta testing stage.