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Trust Facebook to find a way to make video conferencing more miserable and tedious

Yes, it involves VR. Meanwhile, in the real world, the FTC would like a chat about competition

Facebook, a company perhaps not top of mind when it comes to enterprise applications, trust, or privacy, sees an opportunity to make the unloved video conferencing experience more convoluted, costly, and cartoonish.

On Thursday, the social ad giant's Oculus division, having recently recalled millions of itchy foam inserts in its Quest 2 VR headsets, introduced Horizon Workrooms, a virtual reality conferencing system. A suntanned Mark Zuckerberg even gave a interview to promote the concept of a Facebook metaverse.

The service is available as a free download to anyone who has a Quest 2 face-hugger and can recall where the device was last abandoned, or to anyone inspired to buy the headweight for $299, once post-recall sales resume next week.

"Workrooms brings some of our best new technologies together for the first time into one experience on Quest 2," the social network said in a blog post. "Using features like mixed-reality desk and keyboard tracking, hand tracking, remote desktop streaming, video conferencing integration, spatial audio, and the new Oculus Avatars, we’ve created a different kind of productivity experience."

"Different," while hardly Apple-level hyperbole, may be enough to convince Zoom haters – the majority of video conferencing users in multiple surveys – to give masked conferencing a shot. How could it be worse, right?

But "different" doesn't explain why adding an animation layer and obscuring the subtle social cues of human expression will improve the experience of remote interaction on a screen.

Youtube Video

Horizon Workrooms, demonstrated in the marketing video above, will let you "bring your physical computer, keyboard and desk into VR with you," so you'll be able to see graphic depictions of those devices in the virtual scene. Only select keyboard models can be presented thus, however.

Also not supported are legs, at least in sitting mode: images of avatars representing meeting participants include heads, arms, and torsos only as depicted in virtual meeting screenshots.

Dynamic scaling, Facebook style

It's unclear, however, how the inclusion of computers and peripherals in the scene, or limbs for that matter, will make virtual meetings more productive. Horizon Workrooms also promises the ability to "seamlessly write and draw on the shared whiteboard by flipping your controller to use it like a pen" and to use spatial audio "create the feeling of a shared location."

Zoom and other video conferencing systems also offer whiteboard support and have audio. But it's not VR, which is important if you paid $2bn for Oculus in 2014 and still can't figure out why everyone doesn't share your passion for corporate-controlled animated environments where ads can be plastered anywhere.

But wait, there's more: Horizon Workrooms also promises the ability to "stay synced in and out of VR with chats, calendars and notes that automatically update via web." Mind you, synchronization is only a problem if you participate in VR and insist on having access to real world data.

Then there's the killer app: "Customize your avatar to be a true expression of your personality." Because if there's one thing 3D graphic rendering does well, it's represent the truth.

And not to be overlooked, Horizon Workrooms promises a flexible workspace: "Adjust the layout to fit your agenda, from presentations to brainstorms. As participants come and go, your table dynamically scales."

Dynamic table scaling, as you probably already know, is ... er, something.

If you're not already sold on caricature conferencing, Facebook insists it built Workrooms "with privacy and safety in mind." Though it might be more comforting for the company to state explicitly that privacy and safety are built into the product, that's the implication.

"Workrooms will not use your work conversations and materials to inform ads on Facebook," the Oculus post insists. "The audio contents of your meeting are processed on Facebook servers but not stored, unless someone records and sends us a clip as part of a report."

Workrooms will not use your work conversations and materials to inform ads on Facebook

"In this case, we'll use the information to take appropriate action and then delete the recordings. Finally, Passthrough processes images and videos of your physical environment from the device sensors locally. Facebook and third-party apps do not access, view, or use these images or videos to target ads."

Keep in mind that when Oculus founder Palmer Luckey sold the company to Facebook in 2014, he promised, "We are not going to track you, flash ads at you, or do anything invasive." Seven years later, Oculus announced that it's testing ads in VR.

So Horizon Workrooms is "different." But "different" fails to acknowledge that the problem is not just video conferencing. It's meetings in general, remote or in-person, that are widely disliked.

If Facebook wanted a hit product, the company should have applied its AI talent to creating bots capable of attending meetings in the place of actual people who have better things to do than kibitz in a homage to Second Life.

Real life problems

Meanwhile, in the real world, the US Federal Trade Commission picked this particular day to refile its anticompetition lawsuit against Facebook [PDF].

In December, 2020, the US trade watchdog charged that Facebook maintained an anticompetitive social media monopoly by acquiring rivals like Instagram and WhatsApp. In June, the judge hearing the case dismissed the claim for lack of evidence, but left the door open for the FTC to refile.

In its amended complaint, the agency has again put this proposition to the court, but in greater detail. The agency hopes to force Facebook to sell Instagram and WhatsApp to make the social media and messaging markets more competitive.

"Facebook lacked the business acumen and technical talent to survive the transition to mobile," said Holly Vedova, FTC Bureau of Competition Acting Directorin a statement.

After failing to compete with new innovators, Facebook illegally bought or buried them when their popularity became an existential threat

"After failing to compete with new innovators, Facebook illegally bought or buried them when their popularity became an existential threat. This conduct is no less anticompetitive than if Facebook had bribed emerging app competitors not to compete."

"It is unfortunate that despite the court's dismissal of the complaint and conclusion that it lacked the basis for a claim, the FTC has chosen to continue this meritless lawsuit," a Facebook spokesperson said in an email to The Register.

"There was no valid claim that Facebook was a monopolist – and that has not changed. Our acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp were reviewed and cleared many years ago, and our platform policies were lawful.

"The FTC's claims are an effort to rewrite antitrust laws and upend settled expectations of merger review, declaring to the business community that no sale is ever final. We fight to win people's time and attention every day, and we will continue vigorously defending our company." ®

PS: Earlier today, a man suspected of making a bomb threat near the Library of Congress livestreamed on Facebook for hours, surrounded by federal agents, until the social network eventually killed his accounts.

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