Jenga was just one of many games and experiences I tried at Meta’s Reality Labs headquarters in Burlingame, California, last week. I stretched my face in ways that would put Jim Carrey to shame as I tested the eye-tracking and facial expression features. It was surreal seeing a green elfin character, my avatar, mimic these expressions. I intentionally broke virtual toys. I scribbled notes on an imaginary notepad.
I got lost in painting a messy masterpiece, though I fumbled the paintbrushes. Then I hung the virtual painting on a real-life wall. In theory, pinching your fingers to pick up objects is a great thing to be able to do in VR. In practice, it takes … practice. Also, when I tried the painting app, I had to try it on three different headsets, because of what was described as the earthquake effect: The software would glitch and shake, and virtual paint cans would scatter around the room.
I took a live DJ lesson from a real-life DJ, although that person presented as an avatar (just like I did) and was somewhere else entirely, spinning turntables on what might as well have been a different planet. Florida? London? Who knows. I used awkward precision-pinching to turn the knobs and push some faders on my own virtual DJ mixer. The point of the demo was not to test my DJ abilities or even my interest, but to showcase how social presence would feel in a live VR tutorial. Similarly, in an app called Wooorld—two Os is a typo and three Os is an app name, its creator told me—I stood next to a friendly avatar named Paul while we played a game based off of Google Maps. The app would drop us somewhere, anywhere, in Europe. By using context clues and virtually traversing the Google Street View map, we would have to guess where we were. I really enjoyed this.
The final demo of the day was of Meta’s own app, Horizon Workrooms, which is currently in beta. This felt the most forced of all the VR apps I’d tried that day, in the sense that it tried to recreate common workplace interactions in VR and leaned heavily on that concept of social presence, though once again, everyone presented as a cartoon. Navigating an airy virtual conference room— even if the background is Aspen-like—and slapping a virtual Post-it on a virtual whiteboard so my virtual pal Jordan can remark on it doesn’t feel like much of an improvement over sharing a Google Doc on 2D screens.
Horizon Workrooms does let you cast three virtual monitors in front of your eyes, which is great if you don’t have the bucks or space to use three physical monitors at your desk. But its solution for a keyboard is to lay a virtual keyboard over a real-life one, which didn’t line up perfectly in my experience; or to have you peek below your headset to just use the real-life keyboard. At that point, I was relieved to take the Meta Quest Pro off.