Facebook announced its Horizon Workrooms Virtual Reality (VR) effort in yet another attempt to figure out how to use VR to create an alternative to conference rooms. However, the conference room construct is based on the limitations of the technology that created it. In light of that, it is probably not a good template to explore what you can do with VR, which isn’t physically constrained by a room, table, or chairs.
Let’s discuss what Horizon Workrooms gets right and what areas need work.
Horizon Workrooms: Using What Is Familiar
When we bring out new technology, usually, to gain widespread acceptance, we emulate something folks are used to and then innovate from there. The first cars were not only called horseless carriages – they looked like horse-drawn carriages without the horses. But, over time, they’ve evolved to look very different. PC keyboards still use the QWERTY format, which was created not for speed or efficiency, but to keep the keys of a typewriter from getting jammed. So you would think that emulating a conference room would be an excellent place to start when you are building a collaboration product until you realize that very little collaboration actually goes on in conference rooms.
How We Collaborate in an Office Environment
We may start a significant collaboration effort in a room where timetables, responsibilities, and deliverables are defined and agreed upon. But once that is done, the collaboration effort tends to move to the working groups, which can be any size and with people in any location, using voice, email, or collaboration tools specifically designed for the type of project you are working on. This difference isn’t a new change either; we’ve been breaking out into working groups and connecting over phones, email, and focused collaborative tools for decades.
Now I’m not saying everyone collaborates like that all the time. Still, if you want to create a better solution for anything that your folks are currently making, the effort starts by fully understanding how those folks collaborate to begin with. You’ll likely find that tools like Microsoft Teams and Cisco WebEx work better than most in-person meetings that occur in a conference room. The reason for that is conference room meetings tend to be one-to-many type events where one person at a time presents and people interact in a somewhat linear fashion unless you get folks speaking over each other.
That scenario is a bad thing and, in such a situation, a video conference solution allows the moderator to mute attendees speaking out of turn. This benefit suggests that for most conference room meetings, a video conference alternative is likely better now; you not only don’t benefit from a conference room construct, but it might also make things worse, not better.
Watch this demo of Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms. Wouldn’t it be better if you just saw Mark Zuckerberg in a window talking over Teams or WebEx? How do you take a cartoon seriously? We aren’t missing the conference room; the social interaction happens during in-person meetings – the group lunches and breaks, the dinners and drinks after work, and the relationship-building – that’s what we are missing.
Ironically, Facebook’s own Portal effort might be on a better path than Horizon to address that problem because that product focuses on personal interaction. Still, they haven’t positioned that product against this problem.
Horizon Workrooms Initial Reviews
Initial reviews of Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms have been pretty harsh. Facebook did some exciting things like allowing natural hand gestures and getting the mouths of the Avatars to move. But the mistake Facebook is making is starting with the tool rather than starting with a deep analysis of the problem that needs to be solved; that problem is relationship building, not a lack of access to a conference room. You would think a Social Network founded on relationship building would get this.
While Facebook was initially about building relationships, now it is more about entertaining its users. It has lost its way so badly that it does not see the irony in this VR conference offering. It is as if the company is run by someone that doesn’t understand how people interact. The lesson here is when solving a problem, you start with an analysis of the problem, not with the tool, which is what Facebook clearly failed to do.