A contractor at Facebook’s Stadium East office in Seattle was recently diagnosed with the COVID-19 disease (caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus) and now all employees of the company working in Seattle are encouraged to work from home until the end of March.
Seattle is home to Facebook’s VR and AR long-term research division — Facebook Reality Labs — and is not the only major technology company implementing work from home policies in response to workers being diagnosed with COVID-19. Microsoft is headquartered in the area and this week implemented a similar policy. A statement from Microsoft explains “we are recommending all employees who are in a job that can be done from home should do so through March 25”. The response to the novel coronavirus is shifting on an almost daily basis as health officials provide updated guidance as the scale of the spread of the virus becomes clearer.
Most major Internet-enabled technology companies have an office hub in the Seattle area, including Valve, Amazon, and Google, but in the case of Facebook its lengthy work-from-home recommendation simultaneously encompassing its most forward-thinking teams puts particular focus on the company’s work attempting to develop the future of VR and AR.
Facebook’s All-Day Headset
In recent years, “Defy Distance” became the rallying cry for Facebook’s long-term investment in VR and its research teams in Washington state are tasked with developing future head-worn devices that could make all-day work in VR feasible. Today’s VR headsets like Oculus Quest and Rift S are relatively bulky and feature optical designs that focus the eyes at a fixed distance. This combination could cause discomfort immediately in some people and become unwearable after 20 minutes in others, and wearing them over the length of an 8-hour workday is essentially out of the question. But at the Oculus Connect 6 developer’s conference in September, Facebook’s Seattle-based head of VR and AR research Michael Abrash made clear his teams are specifically tasked with developing hardware that might meet this standard.
It is a tall order, but hardware alone is only part of the work Facebook’s engineers are undertaking. A recent report from The Information suggested that Facebook’s overall head of VR and AR Andrew Bosworth is already holding meetings in VR using a prototype version of VR meeting software. Facebook also has teams in other locations working on software like “Codec Avatars” which would create hyper-realistic representations of individuals that could be embodied by their host and transmitted over the Internet.
Of course, physical offices work today because humans signal to each other a wealth of communication cues in intonation, facial expression and intricate body movements that are absent in current communication platforms. We host a weekly podcast and regularly conduct interviews in VR with a virtual studio built using the current generation of publicly available VR technologies. While certainly compelling, the software guesses our facial expressions and the gaze of our eyes, and we are constantly holding controllers in our hands, only able to signal one another with a couple of fingers.
While we don’t know what avatar system is being used with Facebook’s internal VR meeting software, nor what sensors or optical designs are being currently tested within Facebook’s walls, it is likely the current coronavirus and work-from-home policies may force insights that could accelerate or alter future development efforts from the company in VR and AR.