‘A Sense Of Entrapment’: Companies Deal With Worries Of Sexual Harassment In Virtual Reality World
In this photo illustration the logo of "Meta" is displayed behind the VR headset in Ankara, Turkiye on April 1, 2022
Ercin Erturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Metaverse architects for Meta and Microsoft are struggling to figure out how to prevent accusations of sexual harassment in the virtual reality (VR) world. 

The issue came to the spotlight when VR user Nina Jane Patel claimed she was sexually harassed last November by several male avatars in the VR game “Horizon Venues,” a VR world designed by Facebook’s parent company Meta.

“I entered the shared space and almost immediately three or four male avatars came very close to me, so there was a sense of entrapment,” Patel told media outlet AFP. “Their voices started verbally and sexually harassing me, with sexual innuendos.”

Patel, who works for a company that develops “child-friendly metaverse experiences,” accused the avatars of touching and groping her without consent while one avatar took virtual photos of the incident. The male avatars were taunting her, saying ‘don’t pretend you didn’t like it’ and ‘that’s why you came here,’” AFP reported. Patel took off the headset she was using to experience the VR world but could still hear the avatars “taunting” her through her speakers. She says it was “nothing short of sexual assault.”

Katherine Cross, a PhD student at the University of Washington who has researched “online harassment,” believes sexual harassment in VR translates to victimization in the real world.

“When it comes to harassment in virtual reality — for instance, a sexual assault — it can mean that in the first instant your body treats it as real before your conscious mind can catch up and affirm this is not physically occurring,” she said.  

Now, Meta and Microsoft are developing tools to help prevent these encounters in the metaverse. Microsoft simply removed dating spaces from its VR world, but Meta has been working on more specific changes within VR. On February 4, Meta rolled out what it calls “Personal Boundary,” a rule in the VR world that prevents avatars from coming closer than two feet of each other, according to Verdict. Meta also came out with a feature for “Horizon Worlds” that makes an avatar’s hands invisible when it gets close to another avatar. Also, avatars can only be seen from the waist up “to avoid ‘below the belt’ harassment.”

Some engineers believe the problem of sexual harassment allegations in the metaverse will go away on its own.

“I think the harassment issue is one that will actually get resolved because people will self-select which platform they use,” said Louis Rosenberg who worked on the first augmented reality system for the U.S. Air Force in 1992. 

Rosenberg isn’t as concerned with sexual harassment in the VR world as he is with companies encroaching on individuals’ privacy by collecting “all kinds of personal data, from users’ eye movements and heart rate, to their real-time interactions,” AFP reported.

To prevent this level of data collection, Rosenberg believes users would be more protected if VR platforms used a subscription-based model instead of relying on advertising. “We need to change the business model,” he said.

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