Facebook Workrooms is Mark Zuckerberg’s latest attempt to dominate the emerging metaverse market, but the question is if the plan to take on Zoom with virtual reality (VR) will work.
Let’s start with the basics: the Zuck has been busy peddling the idea of the metaverse for weeks. During the latest earnings call in July, the Facebook CEO said that the company may be moving away from ads, the social network’s primary moneymaker, and become a metaverse company.
“I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social-media company to seeing us as a metaverse company,” Zuckerberg said.
Described by Zuckerberg as “the successor to the mobile internet,” the metaverse is one of the latest buzzwords that have sent Silicon Valley executives into a spin. The metaverse basically refers to a virtual world where users share experiences and interact in real-time within simulated scenarios.
“You’re basically going to be able to do everything that you can on the internet today as well as some things that don’t make sense on the internet today, like dancing,” Zuckerberg said during the earnings call.
Essentially, it’s cyperspace a la Ready Player One with a newish name. The term metaverse was first coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash and is now being used to refer to the next stage of augmented reality (AR).
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Facebook Workrooms is the Menlo Park-headquartered company’s latest foray into this space, having long been a champion of VR tech, especially since it acquired Oculus in 2014.
So far Facebook’s attempts to make VR commonplace have been a bit hit and a miss. For instance, Zuckerberg faced a massive backlash in 2017 when he used the social VR platform Facebook Spaces to walk through the hurricane-damaged streets of Puerto Rico.
Two years after the “tone-deaf” live streaming event, Spaces shut down to make way for the next stage in Facebook’s VR journey: Facebook Horizon – not that many people seemed to use the bizarre Spaces platform to begin with.
The next evolution of this is Facebook Workrooms, which is traded under the Horizon name. In a blog announcing the new platform, Facebook suggests that Workrooms is a new way for remote workers to collaborate.
“The way we work is changing,” Facebook wrote. “More people are working remotely, more people want flexible work options, and more people are re-thinking what it means to be in an office. But without the right connective tools, remote work still has plenty of challenges. Working without colleagues around you can feel isolating at times, and brainstorming with other people just doesn’t feel the same if you’re not in the same room.”
The demand for digital collaboration tools is definitely there. The pandemic forced more companies to embrace remote working and, according to a recent GlobalData thematic research report, flexible working is here to stay.
“[Office work] will not be the same after Covid-19,” the report stated. “Physical spaces will be transformed, and remote working, supported by technology, will become the norm for millions of employees.”
The question is if Facebook Workrooms is really the tool people need, or want to use for that matter.
How does it work?
Facebook Workrooms is lush with features to woo remote workers to swap Zoom and Google Meetups for meetings in VR.
The collaboration platform enables users to join their colleagues in a virtual room by strapping on their VR headsets, bring their computers to the room with the Oculus Remote Desktop companion app and collaborate in the room using digital whiteboards.
Each user is able to connect with the “new Oculus avatars” that look quite similar to the avatar Zuckerberg used during his Puerto Rico trip. If you are among the majority of people who don’t have a VR headset, you can simply video call via your desktop or just dial in without having to create an avatar.
“Workrooms brings some of our best new technologies together for the first time into one experience on Quest 2,” Facebooks said. “Using features like mixed-reality desk and keyboard tracking, hand tracking, remote desktop streaming, video conferencing integration, spatial audio, and the new Oculus Avatars, we’ve created a different kind of productivity experience.”
Facebook also made a point about not sharing any Workrooms data to sell users ads, which is hardly surprising giving Menlo Park is being increasingly scrutinised for its dominance in the ads market and for data privacy concerns.
As these privacy concerns are increasingly causing regulators to make it harder for companies to track users online, it’s easy to see why Facebook may want to look for an alternative revenue stream.
Will people use it?
The big question is if Facebook Workrooms will catch on.
“It’s too early to say if the Horizon Workrooms will succeed or not,” Rupantar Guha, associate project manager of thematic research at GlobalData, told Verdict. “The platform has just been launched and there are several aspects that need addressing by Facebook, mostly related to VR.
“The platform requires Quest VR headsets, which are still not very practical in terms of long usage and comfort, and network latency, a steady inhibitor of VR’s growth, will be an obstacle to quick uptake. However, the platform comes into the market at a time when the use of collaboration tools is strong, which might help Facebook get initial traction.”
That being said, so far the people who’ve had hands-on experience of the new platform aren’t too impressed by it.
“After spending over an hour in Workrooms, I can see its potential as a more immersive way to communicate with people who are physically apart, but I don’t see it catching on beyond the most diehard VR enthusiasts anytime soon,” Alex Heath, senior reporter at The Verge, said.
Or Larry Dignan, editor in chief of ZDNet, who admitted that the metaverse initiative could be the next thing, but only if users were willing to look beyond silly little things like “headaches, the dopey avatars, collaborating in VR when a Google Doc will do and devoting more of the time in your life to Facebook and its properties.”
Why does Facebook like the metaverse?
While the initial reviews aren’t stellar, Zuckerberg has reason to keep pushing into the metaverse. It’s simple: the metaverse has big potential.
“Although the metaverse is in the early stages of development, it is becoming a critical theme in the tech, media, and telecoms industry,” said Guha. “The industry has yet to see a true metaverse and a standard definition for it.”
Video games companies like Epic Games have dominated the metaverse realm so far. The Fortnite developer’s metaverse events have attracted millions of users and encouraged brands, advertisers and celebrities to engage with it. Epic Games’ metaverse initiatives are also a reason why it managed to raise $1bn in April 2021.
However, as Zuckerberg tries to show with Facebook Workrooms, the metaverse is not just fun and games.
Let’s take BMW. The automaker has used Nvidia’s metaverse platform Omniverse to create a digital twin of its factories to better configure its manufacturing process.
In May, South Korea launched a metaverse alliance between 17 of the country’s industry leaders.The initiative from the nation’s Ministry of Science and ICT would work towards creating a shared virtual space where users can engage with each other via digital avatars.
More examples are set to arrive within the next few years.
“We see more investments and market competition in the metaverse theme in the coming months, as the tech titans battle for market dominance, and non-tech brands track their progress for potential revenue and operational improvements,” Guha said.