Meta has launched a Personal Boundary function for its nascent virtual reality (VR) social platform Horizon Worlds, following reports suggesting that it had already turned into a den of virtual assaults and harassment.
Horizon Worlds is Meta’s flagship VR platform, that allows users and their avatars to interact with each other. On 4 February 2022 Meta launched the Personal Boundary function, which by default creates an area around an avatar with the equivalent of a two-foot radius, that other avatars cannot enter. You can deactivate your own Personal Boundary, to allow avatars to get closer to your avatar.
Users don’t feel any haptic feedback when other avatars reach the edge of their Personal Boundary, which is invisible. Actions such as fist bumps and high fives can still be executed by an avatar using the Personal Boundary, but they will need to extend their arms to do them.
The Personal Boundary was also launched on Meta’s Horizon Venues platform.
Meta said that it hoped that the Personal Boundary function would “help set behavioural norms” in Horizon Worlds and Venues. A series of recent harassment reports from women exploring the platforms suggested that it had become a norm for users to attempt to sexually intimidate others they meet in this section of the metaverse.
In December 2021 Horizon Worlds launched for users aged 18 and above in the US and Canada. That same month Nina Jane Patel, psychotherapist and metaverse researcher, said that within a minute of joining Horizon Venues she was “verbally and sexually harassed” by a group of three or four male avatars with male voices.
Writing on Medium, Patel said she felt she had been “virtually gang raped”, while the users controlling the offending male avatars took photos of the virtual incident. She wrote that they said “don’t pretend that you don’t love it” and “go rub yourself off to the photo” as she attempted to move her avatar away from the virtual assault.
Patel added: “Virtual reality has essentially been designed so the mind and body can’t differentiate virtual/digital experiences from real. In some capacity, my physiological and psychological response was as though it happened in reality.”
While the new Personal Boundary function might allow you to keep avatars at a safer distance, less close-quarters versions of VR harassment are unlikely to be abated by it. In January 2022, Louise Eccles, consumer affairs editor at The Sunday Times, reported [paywall] that avatars spoke to her about sexual topics without invitation when she trialled Horizon Venues.
Eccles said that a male avatar with stubble and an accent from Yorkshire, UK, asked her: “What are you favourite categories of pornography”. The avatar attempted to follow hers when she tried to walk away.
She explained that during her visit to the Horizon world “a green-faced avatar with a male voice approached another avatar and began simulating sex with it. Others were speculating over who in the group was masturbating at home… one avatar bragged that it was good there were no ‘admins’ – moderators – listening in at the time.”
A Meta spokesperson told The Sunday Times, which focused on child safety in its report: “We’re working to implement the standards within the Age Appropriate Design Code, in consultation with the ICO [the UK data watchdog Information Commissioner’s Office]… we’re committed to meeting the obligations under the code, and to providing young people with age-appropriate experiences.”
Meta’s Horizon platforms are in their early stages, so it’s likely that further anti-harassment measures will be rolled out on them before they are launched to a wider audience.
But with the company putting its chips on widespread metaverse use becoming the next evolutionary step from social media, it needs to take drastic steps to prevent it becoming even more of a hotbed of harassment than the likes of Twitter.
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