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The metaverse is for remote teams. Is Meta ready?

2021-12-30|βŒ›οΈ12 min

Out of the cornucopia of 🌈 possibilities 🌈 in Facebook's metaverse "vision video," one use case stood above them all: Enterprise.

That's right: the first thing this author wants to do when jacked into virtual landscapes with no limitations is meet with his team for a daily standup. So I ordered an Oculus and downloaded Horizon Workrooms. After years of failing to enter the workplace, Meta's latest effort is to be the workplace.

This is a colossal push: they've not only re-entered hardware, but have created a state-of-the-art VR headset. They've designed a virtual world, complete with hand-tracking, lip-syncing, and a whiteboard.

Horizon Workrooms is early and while it's yet to fully realize the potential of immersive VR meetings, there's enough here for small teams to enjoy.

But as novel as this entire stack is – down to the name-change to Meta – this experience has a giant catch lying in wait for whoever attempts it.

More on that later. First, I want to advocate for why I believe that the promise of VR is that it provides a Goldilocks point for coworker interaction for remote teams. Somewhere between Slack and a real-life boardroom – and way better than a Zoom:

You're no longer on camera

In Slack or email, almost everything about an interaction is stripped away. You send and receive text, which are ideas in their most raw form.

Today, we consider a video chat a "halfway point" between Slack and a real-life meeting. After all, you can see the person! You can see their facial expressions and hand gestures, hear their tone.

But a videochat is a strange conversational derivative. You're not so much talking to each other as much as watching each other talk to each other. You're watching someone on camera and you're being watched on camera. Eye contact is difficult if not impossible given relative camera/display placement.

Because you're on camera, you have to be still. You can't change your body position much. And you have to keep your head and eyes locked towards the screen/camera.

Further, the meeting location is rather intrusive: so many of us were reorganizing our rooms at the start of covid to hide the fact we were inviting cameras into our bedrooms.

Better conversational flow

Perhaps the worst part of video chat is that it's hard to find a conversational flow in a video meeting. I believe the primary reason is that it's hard to deliver and pick up on social cues that would allow for cordial interjections.

With eye, mouth, and gesture tracking, in VR we're able to reclaim all the social cues that allow conversations to flow. If I say something that makes Wendy light up with a thought, I can see it, cast my gaze to her, let her interject, then proceed seamlessly.

(Latency will still be a factor, but low-latency video games like first-person shooters offer a lot of hope about the potential.)

Meetings that energize, not drain

There's a sense of presence in VR that's hard to describe but immediately palpable. My sister came down with covid for Christmas. In lieu of seeing her, we hopped into VR to play mini-golf together (cannot recommend enough). Oculus' tracking is currently rudimentary: you get head tracking and basic mouth tracking. But even with those basics, it was so striking: it really felt like her animating this virtual character!

This is what VR enthusiasts call presence. This sense of presence is due to a variety of factors:

First, and most obviously, the world is taking up your entire field of view. You are immersed.

Second, thanks to tracking sensors, your friends and colleagues are embodying their characters. So it feels like they're in the same room with you (which is never a feeling you get on a video call).

Third, like a regular meeting, I'm accountable to where I'm placing my attention. What's more, I can feel when attention is on me (and when attention is wandering).

Last, because you are in the space, you can move about the space naturally. You can pace the room. Instead of giving a presentation glued to my seat, I can walk around, making the presentation more dynamic for both me and my audience. My head and my gaze can move about and sweep the room of people. (VR headsets today have smart features that prevent you from bumping into your furniture.)

We're still missing great facial expression tracking and eye tracking in VR. But already the tech is close enough: in my experience so far, virtual meetings are (finally) energizing as opposed to draining.

You get to leave some personal stuff out

Just as important as what one gets in a virtual meeting space is what one gets to leave behind: your appearance, bad hair day, messy wardrobe, makeup, cluttered living room, kids bursting into your video call background.

Leaving quarantine for the office, it's striking how much about office life can be too personal: it is hard to hide everything from your dietary habits to your bowel movements from your coworkers.

For many kinds of social interactions, VR won't cut it. What's a first date without a first kiss?

But for enterprise, it has the potential for the perfect balance of intimacy and distance between team members.

A place to do work

In the short-term, I see companies using VR to come together for acute events, like meetings or hangouts.

But in the long-term, I see it being a space that employees occupy more and more often, even if they're not meeting with anyone in particular.

With Meta's Horizon Workrooms – Meta's first stab at the virtual office – you can already bring your keyboard and monitor into VR:

bringing your keyboard and monitor into Horizon Workrooms

But, the resolution of your virtual monitor isn't very good, due to limitations in the resolution of the Oculus headset.

I've perused some VR YouTubers that are exploring the frontiers of the technology here. There are some headsets that blow their minds. These headsets are currently prohibitively expensive, but of course it's only a matter of time. (Lots of great reaction videos out there – love this guy in a flight sim.)

Once your headset resolution is good enough, there's little stopping you from having three 4k displays in your virtual office. And the setting for your virtual office can be atop a mountain in Steamboat Springs, Colorado or overlooking La Rambla in Barcelona.

This is why I can easily imagine a world where I spend several hours per day "heads-down" in my virtual office.

On a personal level, that feeling of "transporting" to the place where you do work is very helpful and focusing. When I moved from working out of my bedroom to working out of a dedicated home office, I saw immediate benefits to focus and productivity. VR promises to give every at-home worker that same benefit, perhaps even to a greater extent. My company can render and furnish a virtual office for me to work in that feels like the team's HQ: company logo/paraphernalia, photos, inside jokes, metrics dashboards, etc. This sense of place reinforces the idea that I am a member of a team, part of a greater whole.

On a team level, I anticipate greater camaraderie as customized spaces become familiar haunts where the team brainstorms or passes the time together.

A place to socialize

Speaking of passing the time: who's ever used that phrase when referring to a video call? Polling my friends, the "Zoom hang" is a dreaded approximation of the office happy hour. It feels more like a chore than a fun, engaging social activity.

I still need to experiment with how after-work socializing in VR scales. But having social games with almost zero learning curve seems like a great way for the team to hang out while actually having fun. You can play a round of mini-golf or a round of your favorite board game, and thanks to improved social cues everyone can feel included.

That's all the potential. So, today:

Where does Meta fit in to all of this?

Meta is trying to advance both consumer and business fronts at the same time. As I've made clear so far, I'm bullish on the business front. But I'm bearish on the consumer front: I think it will lag behind the enterprise use case for some time, and will be seen as a social alternative to PlayStation rather than a viable alternative to dinner parties with your friends.

We seek an enrichment from our off-hours socializing that VR is a ways off from providing. But when we're working, we seek to collaborate, share, learn, and focus in quiet environments – which VR is close to providing today.

As was clear in Meta's announcement video, the wide aperture of "consumer and business and whatever else" clouds the use case and the potential. The most common criticism following the announcement was: "So... what is this again, exactly?" The change to Meta was both a commitment and a non-commitment. "We're committing to this space" without a commitment to any one thing in the space in particular. Both a bold bet and a total hedge at the same time.

This makes sense. Strategic ambiguity is necessary for consumer businesses. Who the hell knows what products consumers want? Until the Meta announcement, it felt like Facebook had all but given up figuring that out, instead waiting for the next Instagram or WhatsApp to snap up.

But business-to-business products are totally different. If you want the value-prop for Horizon Workrooms, see above. If Meta had concentrated all their energy on just this use case, far more people would have "gotten" it. There are real pain points with remote work, and if you're reading this post, chances are you got to feel them in the last couple years. And VR – and Oculus in particular – offers a real solution.

So what is it like to enter Meta's metaverse, today, for enterprise?

Well, I hope you like the "blue app," Facebook. Because you'll need it to enter Horizon Workrooms.

That's right. If you're a 30-something millennial startup founder trying to innovate how you run your remote team – e.g. me, i.e. surely their initial target persona – you need to dig up that archaic social profile you last used to check the photo tags from Sigma Chi's 2009 "Rumble in the Jungle."

Of course I didn't want to connect my "real" Facebook to Oculus or Workrooms. It is a relic, and not a relic I feel any need to bring in to the workplace. Its social graph is obsolete, frozen in the early 2010s. Bringing that social graph with me into Oculus would mean turning the metaverse into a dreadful high school reunion. I'm trying to enter the future of work, not Elliott's Bar in my hometown the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

If you're a Meta employee, I'm sure you see Facebook as more like a passport. Perhaps you know that there is no plan for data to flow between Facebook and Workrooms. It's just used to validate that you're human, that you are who you say you are.

If you're one of 7+ billion people that is not a Meta employee, you do not see it like that. Every person I've asked to connect their Facebook account to Oculus has an immediate - visceral - reaction.

This need to "validate that one is human" is precisely the kind of problem a consumer social company thinks is worth solving. Zero enterprise companies are worried about that problem. Why? Because this is my meeting and I invited you to it. If my meeting invitation was sent to shiva@acme.org but that address actually belongs to a Russian botnet and not Acme's biz dev guy, I have bigger problems.

So I connected a fake Facebook to Oculus and then to Workrooms. And it made my experience hell. I couldn't login to Workrooms, because my Facebook didn't have enough "credibility." Defeated, I reached out to support to ask to switch in my "real" Facebook account. I was expecting to receive decent accommodations –after all, I'm trying to early-adopt the very thing the CEO just bet his $1T company on. Yet I was met with – vague threats?

AGENT (Marcelo): To unlink your Facebook Account from your Oculus Account and link it to another Facebook Account, is that what you're suggesting?
USER: Yes. Would that help me resolve the issue?
AGENT (Marcelo): And I would have to warn you that having multiple Facebook Accounts goes against Facebook Policies
AGENT (Marcelo): It may have serious consequences
AGENT (Marcelo): As having your accounts disabled
AGENT (Marcelo): Ok Anthony?

I know this support agent didn't mean to come off so draconian, he didn't make the rules, etc. But the fact that they have this policy, that it's so top-of-mind for their support staff – can you imagine a conversation like this ever taking place with a support agent from a true enterprise company, like Microsoft?

Mark Zuckerberg is obviously aware of this. The name change is as much a signal to people outside his company as those inside of it. He's said explicitly he doesn't want to be Microsoft at the dawn of mobile, so fixated on Windows (Facebook) that they missed the opportunity to build their own iOS.

But requiring a Facebook account to access Horizon Workrooms was an egregious error. It's one of those errors that doesn't feel like just an oversight. It feels like a signal of the deep structural changes Meta will need to make to avoid the innovator's dilemma.

My dad isn't about to sign up for Facebook to take a meeting in VR. But he loves VR mini-golf. And when Microsoft lets his team hop from a Team chat to a VR workspace with a click, I think they're in for a pleasant surprise.

Can Meta get there before this happens?

If you've come this far, that means you're likely curious about exploring the frontier of the online office. If you want to join a team on this frontier that's also building an insanely cool product, check out our careers page and reach out to me directly: anthony [at] sequin.io.