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Meta forced to add ‘personal boundaries’ to the metaverse after woman was sexually harassed in virtual reality

One woman reported the ‘surreal nightmare’ of being ‘gang raped’ in Meta’s Horizon Venues events platform

Adam Smith
Friday 04 February 2022 16:02
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Meta has been forced to add ‘personal boundaries’ in its virtual reality platforms Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues that stops avatars coming into close contact with each other.

The announcement comes after multiple reports of women experiencing sexual harassment when using the platforms.

Horizon Worlds is a free video game where users can explore worlds created by other players, while Horizon Venues allows people to use a headset to watch online events through an avatar.

In December of last year, Nina Jane Patel, a psychotherapist who conducts research on the metaverse, wrote a medium post about the “surreal nightmare” of being “gang raped” in Horizon Venues.

“Within 60 seconds of joining — I was verbally and sexually harassed — 3–4 male avatars, with male voices, essentially, but virtually gang-raped my avatar and took photos”, she wrote.

“As I tried to get away they yelled — ‘don’t pretend you didn’t love it’ and ‘go rub yourself off to the photo’.”

At the time, Facebook said that it was “committed to building” a safe experience and would “continue to make improvements as we learn more about how people interact in these spaces, especially when it comes to helping people report things easily and reliably.”

Now Meta, via a blog post from vice president of Horizon Vivek Sharma, has said that the new ‘Personal Boundaries’ feature will be coming to the platforms today.

It ensures an “almost 4-foot distance” between one avatar and another.

Mr Sharma said that this feature – which is enabled by default - “will help to set behavioral norms”. Users will not feel the boundary activate, and there is no haptic feedback from the action.

Over time, Meta might “explore the possibility of adding in new controls and UI changes, like letting people customize the size of their Personal Boundary.”

Prior to this launch, one of Meta’s beta testers reported that she had been grouped while using the platforms by a stranger.  “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote in the official Horizon group on Facebook.

“Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza.”

At the time, Mr Sharma said that the incident was “absolutely unfortunate” and the beta tester had not used the safety features available in Horizon Worlds – such as blocking someone from interacting with another user.

“That’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable,” he said.

Outside of Meta’s platforms, but using its Quest headsets, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate reported that in popular VR game VRChat there were over 100 problematic incidents – some of which involved users under the age of 13 – over just an 11-hour period.

VRChat did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent before time of publication.

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