That changed last year in the pandemic. As people lived more of their lives digitally, they started buying more VR headsets. VR hardware sales shot up, led by Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2, a headset that was introduced last fall, according to the research firm IDC. To build on the momentum, Facebook on Thursday introduced a virtual-reality service called Horizon Workrooms. The product, which is free for Quest 2 owners to download, offers a virtual meeting room where people using the headsets can gather as if they were at an in-person work meeting. The participants join with a customizable cartoon avatar of themselves. Interactive virtual white boards line the walls so that people can write and draw things as in a physical conference room. The product is another step toward what Facebook sees as the ultimate form of social connection for its 3.5 billion users. “One way or another, I think we’re going to live in a mixed-reality future,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said at a media round table that was conducted this week in virtual reality using Workrooms.
At the event, the avatars of Zuckerberg and roughly a dozen Facebook employees, reporters and technical support staff assembled in what looked like an open and well-lit virtual conference room. Zuckerberg’s avatar sported a long-sleeve Henley shirt in a dark Facebook blue. (My avatar had a checkered red flannel shirt.) Since Workrooms show participants only as floating torsos seated around a wooden desk, no one worried about picking out a pair of pants. Facebook was early to virtual reality. In 2014, it paid $2 billion to buy the headset start-up Oculus VR. At the time, Zuckerberg promised that the technology would “enable you to experience the impossible.” The deal jump-started a wave of acquisitions and funding in virtual reality. Investment in VR start-ups swelled, while companies like HTC and Sony also promised VR headsets for the masses. Microsoft developed the HoloLens, which were hologram-projecting glasses.
But the hype fizzled fast. The first generation of most VR hardware — including Facebook’s Oculus Rift — was expensive. Almost all of the headsets required users to be tethered to a personal computer. There were no obvious “killer apps” to attract people to the devices. Worse still, some people got nauseated after using the products. The next generation of VR headsets focused on lowering costs. Samsung’s Gear VR, Google Cardboard and Google Daydream all asked consumers to strap on goggles and drop in their smartphones to use as VR screens. Those efforts also failed, because smartphones were not powerful enough to deliver an immersive virtual reality experience.
To adjust, some companies began pitching virtual reality not for the masses but for narrower fields. Magic Leap, a start-up that promoted itself as the next big thing in augmented reality computing, shifted to selling VR devices to businesses. Microsoft has gone in a similar direction, with a particular focus on military contracts, though it has said it is “absolutely” still working toward a mainstream consumer product. “Technology that gives you this sense of presence is like the holy grail of social experiences, and what I think a company like ours was designed to do over time,” Zuckerberg said.
The writer is a journalist with NYT©2021
The New York Times