In a development that's surprising to absolutely no one, Facebook/Meta is already having to address groping and sexual inappropriateness in the Metaverse, even though there is no real Metaverse yet — there's just a beta version of a very early stab at it.
People are already beta testing and hanging out in Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues, Meta's early-stage VR software for Oculus that basically lets people have meetings in a virtual space with cartoon avatars and/or attend a live event in virtual space. In early December, Horizon Worlds went from having just a couple thousand beta testers — private testing began in September 2019 — to having many more when the company opened it up to all Facebook users without the need for an invitation. And, the inevitable harassing of female users has begun!
There was apparently some of this already occurring among the beta testers — as The Verge reported, one posted to the Facebook group for Horizon Worlds (originally called Horizons) in early December saying, "Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense. 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, the company said that it had reviewed the incident, and said the user should have employed a blocking feature that would have blocked the offending user from interacting with the beta tester.
And now, Meta has posted to the Oculus blog about a new Personal Boundary in Horizon Worlds that will prevent avatars from getting closer than four feet from each other — all avatars will now have an automatic two-foot radius around them.
"A Personal Boundary prevents anyone from invading your avatar’s personal space," writes Horizon VP Vivek Sharma. "If someone tries to enter your Personal Boundary, the system will halt their forward movement as they reach the boundary."
And, Sharma adds, users "won't feel it" when they run up against this boundary, because there's "no haptic feedback." This is just an expansion of a disappearing-hands feature that Horizon Worlds already had — making an avatar's hands disappear when they got too close to another avatar.
"We are intentionally rolling out Personal Boundary as always on, by default, because we think this will help to set behavioral norms—and that’s important for a relatively new medium like VR," Sharma says, adding that they may allow for customization of one's boundary down the line.
And lord knows the kink community is eventually going to demand some kinky safe spaces in the Metaverse where they can play! What's the point of VR after all but the next evolution in "the internet is for porn."
Well, right now, the Metaverse is still pretty lame, as Wired wrote last year. And it stands to reason that it's going to stay lame as long as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft control all the levers and build all the virtual spaces in it.
This little blip in the early development of the Metaverse could be a just a blip, or a hint of major problems ahead — like, what if the Metaverse never really attracts that many female users because it's all just downside and lewd behavior for them? The New York Times' Mike Isaac noted, in the wake of Facebook/Meta's single-biggest-ever one-day stock tumble this week which was tied to Mark Zuckerberg's massive spending last year on the Metaverse, "In essence, Mr. Zuckerberg is asking employees, users and investors to have faith in him and his metaverse vision." Isaac adds, "That’s a big ask for something that will cost the company billions in the coming years and that may never come to fruition."
But I can't be the only one whose mind immediately went to the enormity of the potential harassment problem as a version of the Metaverse catches on. It's just going to be yet another place where people can inappropriately touch and/or insult each other more anonymously than they can IRL — and a decade and a half into the Web 2.0 world of social media it's not like any company has come close to solving these problems. As the beta tester suggested, though, experiencing this with an Oculus headset on, in a virtual space with other live human avatars, is even "more intense" and inescapable.
As New York Magazine writes, "considering the rampant nature of sexual harassment online, perhaps they should have foreseen how bad the problem would be [in the Metaverse]. Considering that the founder’s first venture was a hot-or-not website for college students, perhaps it’s not surprising that they didn’t."