After more than 18 months of home-working and constant video calls, many of us are fed up with using Zoom, Teams and Google Meet to stay in touch with colleagues. In fact, some companies are introducing "Zoom-free days" and "no meeting Fridays" to cut down on the number of video meetings workers find themselves in.
But now, there is an alternative way to conduct meetings among remote workers. In August, Facebook (FB) announced the launch of the open beta version of Horizon Workrooms — a tool that will allow team members to collaborate in a virtual office or meeting room.
Instead of seeing faces on video, Workrooms is a new virtual reality platform that allows up to 16 people to participate in meetings as digital avatars. Facebook is offering the app as a free download for its Oculus Quest 2 users, who will be able to access functions including a virtual whiteboard, hand tracking, remote desktop streaming, video conferencing integration and spatial audio.
According to Facebook, platforms like Workrooms will form the foundation of a "metaverse" in which the physical and digital worlds are combined. But with workers already facing burnout from too many video calls, do we really need yet another way to collaborate remotely?
“These platforms reproduce a meeting space — say with a table and chairs — in a virtual, 3D world, with all of the participants appearing in avatar form,” says Nigel Cannings, co-founder and CTO of Intelligent Voice and Myna.
“The participants can interact with objects in the room, like a whiteboard. It is a very game-like and completely immersive experience, and relies on the user wearing a headset. The idea is to give participants the feeling of being in a live, face-to-face meeting.”
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Although Workrooms may sound similar to Zoom or Teams, it is a very different experience. “Teams and Zoom are much more focused on the audio experience, with video used as a 2D representation of the participants, so it is like watching co-workers on the TV,” says Cannings.
“In theory, these VR meeting rooms are designed to give a more life-like interaction with other people,” he says. “They are in 3D and may also have immersive audio, so people sound like they are sitting in different parts of the room. In terms of team engagement, this can be a great plus. Also, because the representation of you in the meeting is via an avatar, you don’t have to be sitting on your best behaviour throughout the meeting.”
The aim of Workrooms is to allow people to come together to work “in the same virtual room” regardless of where people are physically. In theory, this may help improve a team’s ability to collaborate, communicate and connect remotely, whether that is brainstorming ideas or working on a project. According to Facebook, virtual reality allows people to have conversations that flow more naturally — something many remote workers have struggled with during the pandemic.
“The advent of AR or augmented reality meetings will allow users to interact with other meeting participants in a much more natural environment. For example, sitting them around your own table in your kitchen,” says Cannings. “This reduces the sense of dislocation people feel in VR environments and is likely to lead to much wider adoption of virtual meetings.”
However, although Workrooms might provide a unique experience for employees, it’s unlikely to gain the same popularity as Zoom and other streamlined video-conferencing apps.
The key issue is that companies would need to purchase expensive virtual reality headsets for their employees simply so they can hold meetings in a digital room as characters, which seems unlikely.
Horizon targets tech-forward companies that want to experiment with new ways to collaborate in virtual reality. But for most businesses, Zoom and Teams offer a cheaper, easy-to-use alternative that allows people to host meetings remotely.
In addition, the avatar set-up may also be distracting for employees too. And with “video burnout” a common problem and remote meetings already dragging on longer than ever, it’s unlikely workers will appreciate having to spend even more time in conferences.