Meta Platforms Inc. has made it clear that it wants to infiltrate the business world with virtual reality technology. So I tested the premise Tuesday morning and attended the company’s Connect developer conference through an Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset.
The conference was hosted on the company’s Horizon Worlds app, which the company says will soon be filled with essential business productivity offerings from Microsoft, Adobe, Accenture and Zoom. Digital avatars, which look like cartoon versions of us except legless (more on that later), have access to PDFs, Word docs, breakout rooms, and whiteboard meetings.
It’s going to be an adaptation and it takes more than a few familiar tools to convince me.
Attending the event wasn’t as easy as following a video link. I had to pull up the company’s Horizon Worlds app, the virtual universe where people can build and participate in their own mini-experiences, and launch the Connect conference from my event queue. A light blue loading screen with a flashing “Warning” sign dropped my avatar into a hallway that led to a sprawling virtual courtyard with some multi-story buildings, lots of greenery, and a water feature with a slowly spinning meta logo.
For those who are somewhat familiar with video games, I would bring the world closer to a Roblox or the Sims. Simple, no-frills designs made it easy to navigate. I could tell when my avatar was climbing the stairs – er, floating. Sounds of nature, bubbling water, and the muffled conversations of a handful of other users around me made me feel like I was there. But the dark sky betrayed neither the time nor the weather; The smell of my real coffee was my only reminder that the workday had started.
A sign directed me across the courtyard to Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote, so – grateful for my experience as a casual gamer – I pushed two joysticks around the fountain, up a few steps, and into the Horizon’s version of a Metaverse amphitheater maneuver. Not expecting to “walk” to the event, I was about a minute late, but spotted a sign saying 1,200 people were already there.
I didn’t expect to have to walk around adjusting to different parts of the presentation. I began to imagine how comfortable the average business participant would feel with a headset fumbling for their hand controller after putting it down to type during a meeting.
Then I panicked that I couldn’t put on the headset and type at the same time. Apparently there is a way to set up the headset to “see” the world around you via small cameras on the device. I didn’t know how to activate this and had to squint through my nostril to click my keyboard, get my controller, and pull up my Slack or Twitter on my real laptop.
At first it seemed unnecessary to look at the presentation in this medium. The meta executives appeared via pre-recorded video announcing various products in their real skin; I moved my avatar down to a landing to get a better look at her. Some quirky touches were only available in VR, like video game characters floating off-screen or millennial aesthetic architecture.
Event etiquette in VR is also apparently still evolving. I had to move to avoid some of the dozen people in my room talking during the presentations and some poor soul with a stuffy nose sniffling and blowing my nose relentlessly.
Then the brand new Zuckerberg avatar appeared on stage, donning the gray sweater, skinny jeans and Tech Bro sneakers he wears in real life. He told his virtual audience what they wanted to hear: Soon they would be getting legs. The announcement was a hit. All the avatars floated onto the stage to celebrate, stopped by a virtual railing like at a Sims concert (even in the metaverse, Zuckerberg gets safety). Some threw confetti or thumbs-up emojis in the air.
Then it was over. For a reporter like me, the end of an ‘in person’ event is not the end of our work and I had planned to interview some attendees. But I wasn’t fast enough for those off-switches as people returned to their real lives or other virtual worlds. The yard was empty. And my face hurt.
PC Mag puts the Quest 2 headset at 17.7 ounces (1.1 lbs). Even after I adjusted and readjusted the straps, that weight pulled on my face, messed up my makeup, and broke the anti-aging rule of never pulling skin. After writing this, I pulled out my makeup bag to touch up and wondered how many people who work on virtual reality at Meta wear makeup every day. On Tuesday, the company said more photorealistic avatars are coming, but I still want to showcase an unsmeared version of me in the real world when the headset is removed.
Meta itself is struggling to get its own employees to use Horizons at least once a week, according to two internal Meta memos reported by The Verge. The spate of tools coming to the Metaverse today, some of the most popular in the corporate world, are clearly an attempt to give people a reason to be there. But for me, I put my headset away from 9 to 5.