At Facebook’s yearly event for its Oculus VR division yesterday, the company announced all sorts of new, consumer-friendlier products, like a $199 Oculus Go VR headset system that doesn’t need an expensive PC or smartphone to work. And unsurprisingly, it showed off plenty of–pew! pew!–video games, too. But its biggest announcement was quietly squeezed in between, aimed right at anyone who slaves the day away at a desk, working for the man. It’s new software called Oculus Dash. And it essentially turns your typical desktop experience into a full virtual reality dashboard that you can touch.
“As hardware improves, we’re on the path to replace traditional monitors entirely,” said Nate Mitchell, head of Rift, on stage. In other words, Oculus doesn’t just want you to socialize in VR, and it doesn’t just want you to play in VR. It wants you to work in VR, too. It’s a revelation that comes in tandem with the company’s new, enterprise-facing program called Oculus for Biz, which bills itself to be “an all-in-one solution for businesses looking to integrate VR for workplace training, collaboration, retail sales, and much more.” But will we really want to work in VR? If the experience can improve upon the desktop, maybe.
For years, computing has been anchored to the desktop metaphor. It’s why you have “folders” on your Mac or PC, dragged around on a “desktop” just like real folders would slide across a real wooden desk. In the 1980s, and even more recently, this metaphor was very useful. Who would want to explain something as esoteric as the cloud to someone using a keyboard and mouse for the first time? But “look inside the folder–yeah, a folder, just like you’ve got in your desk,” was a perfectly reasonable instruction to anyone who’d spent a day in an office.
Oculus Dash radically rethinks that flat desktop for something that looks more like the command bridge of the Starship Enterprise. At your waist, there’s a long bar, which floats almost like a banister. Here you can swipe between different apps. Up top, you have windows of all your open apps, which can live at various depths and sizes. Moving them is as easy as dragging and dropping–but with your whole hand, rather than a mouse.
“It’s more than a mirror of your physical monitor,” promises Mitchell, alluding to some of the rougher attempts at VR productivity. “Your workspace is infinite. Every application can have its own virtual display, scaled.”
The company’s brief demo video is really more a tease than a true walkthrough on Dash’s full capabilities and limitations. For instance, it promises to run all normal desktop apps (presumably from Windows–since that’s the platform Oculus runs on today). But what happens when you want to type? How will you actually open links, or right click like you do with a mouse? There are many John Underkoffler-style interface problems yet to solve. And with such a customizable workspace, how is Oculus ensuring that the ergonomics are comfortable for long periods of time? My standing desk is measured to have my display and keyboard at the perfect height. Yet when I tried a similar VR desktop experience in the past, it was a literal pain in the neck . . . in minutes.
There’s an even larger question to consider: Will all of the extra immersion of VR actually help you get work done? Will it be more than just a sports bar’s-worth of 2D monitors? Can it actually introduce new experiences–or some incentive to really use our hands again?
This is not to say Dash is a bad idea at all, or a bad idea for right now. If VR is going to really reach 1 billion people, as Mark Zuckerberg promised on stage this week, it’s probably going to need to solve at least some problems of good old computational productivity. But until the whole world of apps joins in, your Google Doc will still be the same old Google Doc–only bigger.