“Perhaps you noticed when changing seats that you heard me a little louder and a little closer in your left ear,” he says, much louder and to my left than before. I also jump to another place.
“You see!” says Philip. “Now you sound a bit further away.”
This nifty spatial audio technology trick is part of the offer Facebook and its parent company 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. Although this world will almost certainly be part of our future, it probably won’t be a place for work meetings.
In Horizon Workrooms, where our avatars are active, I can “write” on a virtual whiteboard and Philip can share his screen to show a PowerPoint presentation. I can even turn our environment into a cabin by the lake, and there’s a vacant spot on the wall where I can put a company logo. I can get up from my seat and “stand” next to the whiteboard.
That’s important, says Philip, because when I’m in front, everyone feels like 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 no matter where they are?” asked Ade Ajayi, who recently began leading efforts to sell virtual meeting room technology to employers. He used the word “immersive” a further eight times during our 30-minute conversation.
When I asked if his own team uses workrooms, Ajayi said they use it from time to time. 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 talking to Ajayi, I couldn’t imagine that connecting with my colleagues would be more rewarding than a regular video call. First off, the headset was heavy, and zooming around made my stomach churn a bit. A Facebook representative said they take off their headsets every 30 minutes at their weekly meetings to give their eyes and mind a break. Immersion has its limits.
In fact, many 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 the real value of VR for employers is to use it to build stronger relationships through fun and games or training.(1)
Facebook reps wouldn’t tell me which companies are currently using Horizon Workrooms, but they did mention consulting firm Accenture Plc and drugmaker AstraZeneca Plc as examples of how VR meetings could work.
Accenture told me it bought 60,000 Quest 2 headsets last year but didn’t use Horizon Workrooms for meetings. Instead, new hires used an app from Microsoft Corp. called AltSpace VR, where they enter virtual buildings to orient and train with new hires. AstraZeneca declined to comment.
Bank of America Corp., which recently bought 4,000 alternative virtual reality headsets, is using them for employee training. The bank is exploring ways to use VR for meetings, but said it also needs to consider aspects like network security and user experience. “We don’t want to just do it because we can,” said Mike Wynn, BoA’s head of innovation.
According to Mosher, companies that buy VR headsets for meetings often find that they are more useful for internal events or training.
Facebook is addressing an increasingly sensitive employer-employee relationship made even more strained by the rise of remote work. Employers are desperate to better manage remote workers who may be feeling lonely and isolated. While this problem presents itself as an opportunity, Facebook faces a unique challenge when it comes to targeting the company.
Since 2016, Facebook has been selling Workplace, an enterprise version of the Facebook app that competes with Microsoft’s Teams and Slack. Employees at Starbucks Corp., Walmart Inc., and the Singapore government use it for group chat, video conferencing, and sharing news links. But in six years, Workplace has only amassed 7 million paid users. That’s still significantly less than the 270 million people who use Microsoft Teams each month, or the 20 million people who use Slack, according to an estimate by Business of Apps, an app news site. All three services are subscription-based.
Ultimately, cloning a conference room in VR won’t make collaboration more effective, and mimicking the feeling of being in a room with your colleagues is a superficial response to employee isolation. For this reason, companies with remote workers are better off holding quarterly offsite meetings where their employees can meet face-to-face for fun and real-world collaboration over the course of a few days. You can even experience a fun VR adventure together, like climbing Mt. Everest.
Finally, there’s the big elephant in the room: Facebook’s patchy reputation for privacy and social harm. According to a January TechCrunch report, Workplace from Meta recently acquired a major restaurant chain as a customer but was asked not to announce the deal because they were concerned about “reputation issues.”
That could also hamper Facebook’s corporate efforts in VR. Some employers don’t want to force their employees to use or open a Facebook account, which they need to use Oculus, says Mosher, citing previous conversations with clients who said they weren’t happy with their company data either flow over Facebook.
“I know Facebook has reassured everyone who works with them that privacy is very solid,” he said. “But people don’t think that way when it comes to the Facebook brand.” Shrugging off that level of awareness can be even harder than getting employers to swap their Zooms for VR, no matter how immersive.
More from the Bloomberg Opinion:
• Zuckerberg’s biggest bet may not pay off: Parmy Olson
• TikTok is the new front in election misinformation: Tim Culpan
• Meta’s “Metamates” face a rough journey: Mark Gongloff
(1) Peloton was one of the companies that bought headsets for virtual meetings before moving on to using them for team events, Mosher said. Peloton did not respond to a request for comment.
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is the author of We Are Anonymous.
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