“Collaboration reimagined” is the way Facebook describes its Horizon Workrooms, a new virtual-reality conferencing tool.

Instead of the two-dimensional video boxes of your colleagues’ talking heads, as is available in many current videoconferencing apps, Horizon Workrooms promises an immersive VR environment in which you can move around a virtual meeting room, interacting with your team members, wherever they are located.

It combines videoconferencing with spatial audio to enhance a sense of presence and distance; team members are represented by customizable Oculus avatars. Currently available in open beta for Oculus Quest 2 users in supported markets, Horizon Workrooms features mixed-reality desktops, keyboard tracking, hand tracking for gesture control, as well as videoconferencing functionality we increasingly take for granted, like whiteboarding and document sharing.

Facebook’s media release describes the interaction as “more expressive and natural, helping you feel like you’re really there with your colleagues,” with conversation that “sounds more lifelike too… You’ll hear the people around you based on where they’re seated, just like they’d sound in a real room.”

A breakthrough or just a curiosity?

In terms of simulating the in-person experience, the emphasis on audio is vitally important, offering the sensation of presence and distance. But combined with cute VR avatars, is this a real breakthrough for enhancing remote collaboration, or just a curiosity?

John Hopkins, founder of a service for hybrid and remote teams, Workflex, and an Innovation Fellow and associate professor of management at Swinburne University in Australia, sees potential in Horizon Workrooms as a serious business tool.

“The avatars with big heads certainly look a bit gimmicky now, but what they’re trying to achieve is serious, and as the technology becomes more sophisticated, the experience it supports has the potential to become more authentic and valuable,” he said.

The major platforms have been doing what they can to make the online meeting space more immersive and engaging, even if the current gallery-style Teams and Zoom displays don’t quite deliver. Hopkins points out that different interactions demand different kinds of connection and collaboration, and that we won’t need VR-level intensity for every conversation.

“I’m not sure we [need Horizon Workroom-type immersion] for all meetings, but I think this product aims to offer more than just 3D virtual meetings. I think it aspires to be a virtual collaboration tool that enables us to interact with others in a realistic way in the ‘metaverse.’

“It’s important that we don’t regard this as just as a replacement for Zoom or Teams, it will simply be another tool for our toolkit. Many of us have had video-call functionality like FaceTime on our phones for years, but we still make audio calls when that is the preferred communication method. … This will be the same: We’ll continue to use the likes of Zoom and Teams for many online meetings, but maybe turn to something like Horizon Workrooms when we have specific group tasks that require richer interactivity with colleagues.”

Potential for counteracting proximity bias?

As employees return to central offices, enhanced virtual presence might help overcome the proximity biases that could emerge when some people are on site and others remote. (Many experts fear, for example, that on-site employees who are visible to their managers will be more likely than their remote colleagues to receive raises and promotions.)

Facebook’s technology is designed to provide an equivalent experience to all participants, whether they’re physically present together in a conference room or distributed globally — VR can only function on a one-person-per-headset basis, unlike video (though the platform can also support additional video and audio participants dialing in, with up to 16 in VR mode).

Hopkins, however, notes that it will take a lot more than a clever meeting experience to overcome innate biases. Most of the casual interaction and informal communication that help create a workplace culture take place continually, and far from scheduled meetings.

“Proximity bias can only be eliminated if everybody has even standing, either all working in the office or all remotely,” he said. “I think offices will still be around for many years to come. Lots of businesses probably won’t ever go fully remote, and I doubt we’ll be using tools like Horizon Workrooms all day every day — so I think it’s potential for negating proximity bias will be minimal.”

An expanding market for VR

As high-bandwidth, low-latency connectivity becomes the norm, new use cases will emerge for the kind of virtual presence which truly helps create the illusion of direct presence, such as Google’s Project Starline. The Google research project makes it seem that the person we are talking to is just on the other side of the screen.

For now, though, VR for the office environment is very much a work in progress.

“Wearing a heavy headset for long periods of time simply isn’t realistic right now, but that interface will improve over time, and no doubt become less intrusive in future versions,” Hopkins said.

“The frequency will also improve, which should help reduce the motion sickness many of us experience. I’m sure there will be healthy competition in this market — the appetite for digital work tools has probably never been greater,” he added.

And the potential markets for VR will continue to expand, he says.

“Gamers have been playing against friends around the globe in the VR world for years and, as this technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, I’m sure it will play a bigger role in many other aspects of our lives — whether that be work, study, tourism, shopping, attending sport events or interactive entertainment TV/movie experiences.”

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