“Welcome, welcome!” My guide, Philip, waves at me from his seat in a virtual conference room, where he’s wearing a green shirt and sitting at a desk. I’m at Facebook’s Reality Labs headquarters in Burlingame, California, wearing Meta Platform Inc.’s Quest 2 headset. Philip is in another room there as his cartoonish-looking avatar hops to another seat using a button on his virtual dashboard.
“You may have noticed when I changed seats that you heard me a little louder and a little closer in your left ear,” he says, noticeably more loudly and to-the-left-of-me than before. I jump to a different seat too.
“Right,” I say.
“You see!” says Philip. “Now you sound a little bit further away.”
This neat trick of spatial-audio technology is part of the pitch that Facebook and its parent, Meta Platforms Inc., are making to employers to gain a foothold in the metaverse, the virtual world that Mark Zuckerberg says is the next chapter of the internet. Though this world will almost certainly be a part of our future, it probably won’t be a place for work meetings.
In Horizon Workrooms, where our avatars are engaging, I can “write” on a virtual white board, and Philip can share his screen to show a PowerPoint presentation. I can even change our environment to a lakeside cabin, and there’s a blank space on the wall where I can put a company logo. I can get out of my seat and “stand” by the whiteboard.
That’s important, says Philip, because if I’m standing at the front, then everyone else feels like they’re in an audience. “It really helps with immersion,” he says.
This abstract notion of immersion is a key selling point. “How do we help businesses create an immersive presence, regardless of where you are?” asked Ade Ajayi, who recently started heading up efforts to sell the virtual conference room tech to employers. He used the word “immersive” another eight times in our 30-minute conversation.
When I asked if his own team uses Workrooms, Ajayi said they hopped on it every so often. It’s more effective than Zoom because creating and viewing documents in virtual reality “creates a more immersive and engaging experience,” he said, without elaborating.
After the demo and conversation with Ajayi, I struggled to see how being immersed with my colleagues would be more worthwhile than a normal video call. For a start, the headset was heavy, and zooming around made my stomach lurch a little. 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.
Facebook’s representatives wouldn’t tell me which companies were currently using Horizon Workrooms, but they did mention Accenture Plc, the consulting firm, and the drugmaker AstraZeneca Plc in examples about how VR meetings could work.
Accenture told me it had bought 60,000 Quest 2 headsets last year, but that it wasn’t using Horizon Workrooms for meetings. Instead, new employees used an app from Microsoft Corp. called AltSpace VR, where they go into virtual buildings for new-hire orientation and training. AstraZeneca declined to comment.
Bank of America Corp., which recently bought 4,000 alternative virtual-reality headsets, uses them for staff training. The bank is looking at ways it could use VR for meetings, but said it also had to consider issues like network security and user experience. “We don’t want to do it simply because we can,” according to BoA innovation executive Mike Wynn.
Often, companies that buy VR headsets for meetings typically realize they’re more useful for internal events or training, according to Mosher.
Facebook is tackling an increasingly sensitive relationship between employer and employee, one made all the more tense by the rise of remote working. Employers are desperate to better manage remote staff who may be feeling lonely and isolated. While this problem presents itself as an opportunity, Facebook faces a unique challenge in targeting the enterprise.
Already, since 2016, Facebook has been selling Workplace, an enterprise version of the Facebook app that rivals Microsoft’s Teams and Slack. Employees at Starbucks Corp., Walmart Inc. and the government of Singapore use it for group chats, video conferencing and sharing news links. But in six years, Workplace has amassed just 7 million paid users. That’s still well below the 270 million people using Microsoft Teams every month, or the 20 million people using Slack, according to an estimate from the Business of Apps, an app news site. All three services are subscription based.
Ultimately, cloning a conference room in VR isn’t going to make collaboration more effective, and replicating the sensation of being in a room with your colleagues is a superficial answer to staff isolation. For that, companies with remote workers are better off holding quarterly offsite meetings, where their staff can meet face-to-face over the course of a few days for fun and real-world collaboration. They can even have a fun VR adventure together, like climbing Mt. Everest.
Finally, there’s the big elephant in the room: Facebook’s sketchy reputation on privacy and social harm. According to a TechCrunch report in January, “Workplace from Meta” had recently nabbed a large restaurant chain as a client but was asked not to announce the deal because they were concerned about “reputation issues.”
That may be hampering Facebook’s enterprise efforts in VR too. Some employers don’t want to force their employees to use or open up a Facebook account, which they need to use the Oculus, says Mosher, citing previous conversations with clients who said they also weren’t comfortable with their corporate data flowing through Facebook.
“I know Facebook has assured everyone who works with them that the privacy is super solid,” he said. “But people don’t think that way when it comes to Facebook’s brand.” Shaking off that notoriety may be even harder than getting employers to swap their Zooms for VR, no matter how immersive.