Building on its now longstanding investment in virtual reality (VR), Facebook has announced a new remote collaboration platform, Horizon Workrooms, to help people work with one another, regardless of where they are physically. Now in open beta, Horizon Workrooms is available for anyone with a traditional PC or an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset. This new software platform announcement represents just one aspect of Facebook’s broad strategy to take its users (slowly) into VR spaces and platforms, at a pace that has only been increased by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Increasing Need for Remote Collaboration and Flexible Work Options
Flexible work options were growing in value even before the coronavirus swept across the globe. Data gathered by Compare Camp showed steady growth in the value employees placed on flexible work throughout 2019. Almost three-quarters (73%) stated that flexible work options increased their overall job satisfaction. Employers also saw advantages as companies that allow remote and flexible work tended to have 25% lower employee turnover. This is only more important now that the pandemic has been occurring for the past year and a half.
Pandemic data gathered by McKinsey & Company showed the desire for flexible workflows increased by 22% within the past year. Interestingly, the desire for full remote only increased by 3%, showing that many workers want at least some level of social interaction at their workplace. Given the uncertain nature of COVID’s future and just how long the pandemic will drag on, businesses must be investing in tools that enable and improve flexible work conditions and remote collaboration. Tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are now the bare minimum, not the full extent of what companies can do.
Virtual Reality as a Remote Collaboration Tool
VR provides the potential for stronger and more robust remote collaboration. Platforms like Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms are much more comprehensive than video conferencing software. For starters, spatial audio and user avatars (computer-generated representations of actual people) help create the feeling that the user is in the same room with everyone else in the meeting. Second, virtual rooms can be modeled to suit the purpose of a call. So, a PowerPoint can be presented in a small theater, whereas conversation can take place at a round table where everyone can see one another clearly. Facebook’s VR platform does not allow for giant meetings (it’s a 16-user max), but this is arguably a good thing—as Stanford University professor Robert Sutton determined that the vast majority of productive meetings have fewer than eight people present.
VR has other advantages over traditional video conferencing (and even traditional meetings), as well. For instance, it is very difficult to collaborate in real-time with just Teams or Zoom. Often, other tools must be used—and even then, it’s usually everyone working in Dropbox or in Google Doc. In VR platforms like Horizon Workrooms, users have a whiteboard where they can quickly jot down ideas. This whiteboard is as big as it needs to be, offering infinite room to jot down notes, plans, and strategies. All of this can be done effortlessly with Oculus Touch controllers, which offer a smooth and intuitive user interface (UI) that has been designed for users of any digital background.
The Remaining Barriers to Virtual Reality
Though many may have dismissed VR as a failed fad that didn’t last past 2016, the reality is quite different. While mainstream consumer VR is still some time away, VR in the business space has made enormous leaps and gains—and Facebook’s new announcement is just one of many VR workrooms coming into the market for companies to use to boost productivity without needing everyone to return to the same physical space.
That said, some remain skeptical of just how ready VR is for everyday use even in the business field. Speaking to the Washington Post, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said, “We’re not there yet…the headset is too heavy. There’s no eye contact.” Specifically, Yuan felt that headsets needed to be as comfortable as eyeglasses before there was a real takeoff.
Of course, there is a wide range of VR headsets available today, some of which are very heavy and tethered via wire to PCs to function. The Oculus Quest 2 is likely on the opposite side of the spectrum, being an all-in-one device that allows its users complete freedom for the duration of its battery life (which is only between two to three hours). Issues like freedom of movement (while remaining safe), comfort, and battery life have been obstacles regarding mainstream VR usage. While the trend is for smaller, more comfortable, and longer lasting headsets, many out there will still have to wait a bit for ideal VR hardware.
Facebook’s Horizon Workroom is an exciting new announcement in the increasingly crowded VR remote collaboration space. It is further evidence that, while VR has had a slow start, the technology is making steady progress and is already a tool that can be useful to offices and businesses looking to strengthen their flexible and remote working capabilities.
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