Chang walks alone in Horizon Venue, which is a VR platform under Meta’s umbrella to hold events. Faced with the question of a strange male incarnation, she was a little at a loss, so she turned her head and left.
But the man continued to follow her until he clung to her, reached out his hand to touch her crotch, and the men onlookers laughed. Chang realized that she was being harassed by strangers, and even though she knew it was a fake, uncomfortable feelings came to her heart. She made no response, just ran away quickly and blocked them.
When she returned to reality, she felt that she was “thinking of vomiting,” which was not the dizziness brought about by the VR world.
There are many things similar to Chang’s experience.
Everything is virtual, so what?
Parmy Olson, a reporter and writer who writes for Bloomberg, is another person who feels uncomfortable in Horizon Venues. She chose brown straight hair and a suit jacket that were close to reality for her avatar, and she seemed to be just a floating “legsless monster”.
But when she logged in, a small group of male avatars surrounded her, and several people began to take pictures of her. “This experience is very embarrassing. I feel a bit like a specimen.” But not all virtual experiences are bad. She expressed her real concerns on Twitter:
I think 10% of the encounters are terrifying and unpleasant. So imagine this will expand to millions of users, which is kind of worrying.
Coincidentally, on November 26, the virtual avatar of an internal tester was “groped” by a stranger on Meta’s other VR platform Horizon Worlds. “There are other people who support this behavior, which makes me feel isolated.”
Earlier in 2016, female user Jordan Belamire shared her unpleasant experience of being harassed on the QuiVr platform. All QuiVr users look very similar. They wear a floating helmet, one hand bends a bow and shoots an arrow, and the other hand floats freely. The only difference is the sound.
User BigBro442 chose to chase Belamire and grab her chest and crotch, but those parts did not exist in the game. In the last second, she was still in the snowy medieval castle, shooting down zombies and demons in a group, she plummeted in an instant:
The game made me a god who walks a hundred feet high, but now I have become a powerless person being chased. Of course, your body is not touched, as if you are actually not a hundred feet above the ground, but it is still as terrible as hell.
A study conducted in 2018 for the VR communication service Pluto stated that nearly half of female avatars have experienced at least one virtual sexual harassment.
However, the types of VR harassment are broad, not only limited to virtual sexual harassment, but also stalking others without authorization, obstructing the normal activities of others, racially discriminatory remarks, and so on.
CNET reported that an anonymous Meta employee once reported internally in January this year that someone chanted racial discrimination in the social VR application Rec Room. The employee could not identify and report them, and “feeling a failure” when he exited the virtual world.
According to The Information, Meta will “pop up like clockwork” reports of racial discrimination, sexual orientation, hate speech, or other issues every 7 or 8 weeks.
In the early massive multiplayer online games, there was a word to describe those players who deliberately annoyed others-griefers, and it also applies to the current virtual world. Before we entered the Metaverse, the harassment had gone with us.
The reason for frequent harassment is not only the unscrupulous hiding behind the avatar, but also the imperfect security mechanism.
More than one player cannot identify the user name when they want to report the situation, and cannot submit recording and video evidence; sometimes, even if the user has already submitted it, the reviewer cannot determine who is saying what.
An Echo VR team member pointed out that trying to store recordings and videos is a “technical challenge and policy challenge” for Oculus games. For privacy reasons and memory limitations, only part of it can often be stored. But if you don’t record it, you don’t know what happened.
The function of isolating oneself from harassment is not easy to find. Chang, who was harassed at Horizon Venue, said: “One place that is so badly designed is that it is very difficult to exit. You have to return to your room before you can find an exit option in a very unintuitive place.”
Similarly, Meta believes that the internal tester did not use the built-in security features of Horizon Worlds, and they will make improvements based on this situation to make the “blocking feature” easier to find.
In addition, VR platforms often have community conventions, but it has not actually become a consensus.
Bloomberg’s Parmy Olson pressed the button on her virtual wrist in time and entered the safe zone. The surrounding area suddenly became quiet, “I know I am safe, but I feel uncomfortable, and there is no clear etiquette and personal space rules.” .
When we first arrive in VR, we need to be familiar with how to go unimpeded, or learn to build 3D objects and learn script blocks like in Horizon Worlds, but it is difficult to defend against harassment before it happens.
Ohio State University professor Jesse Fox warned that VR harassment actually opened the door to new violations:
If you highly identify with your virtual avatar and portray yourself in a real way, you will feel violated. If someone sends a harassing email to your work email or harassing you in a chat room, it’s no different.
At the same time, the high sense of presence in VR makes harassment feel more intense. According to Katherine Cross, an online harassment researcher at the University of Washington:
The essence of virtual reality space is that it allows users to think that their body is in a certain space, and every body movement takes place in a 3D environment. This is part of the reason why emotional responses are stronger in that space, and why VR triggers the same internal nervous system and psychological responses.
Please give me strength gestures!
Now that the problem has arisen, how can the VR platform solve it?
In response to the problem of female players being chased in 2016, QuiVr developers designed a “Power Gesture”.
The player only needs to cross his arms in the air, and a ripple spreads. The voices and images of other nearby players disappear from the field of vision, and the players themselves are not visible to others, as if they are not in the same space.
The developer said: “If VR has the ability to deprive someone of their rights and cause real psychological harm to someone, then we will return this power to the player.”
Its logic is simple-to provide a safe space within reach. Before that, the player must press pause, browse the menu and then make a selection.
In 2021, what are the current “metauniverse” companies doing?
Meta provides a “rolling buffer with local storage” in Horizon Worlds, and the headset will record the user’s recent audio and other interactive information.
When a user submits a report, the data in the automatic buffer will be uploaded to determine how to deal with (mute, warning, account ban, etc.) violating players, otherwise it will be automatically deleted after a period of time.
The advantage of this is that it avoids letting the headset record everything indefinitely (which infringes on privacy and exhausts memory), nor does it require users to record the process themselves and submit evidence.
Meta spokesperson Kristina Milian said that now users must go through the “onboarding process” before joining Horizon Worlds to learn how to activate the safe zone. The screens and posters in Horizon Worlds also regularly load reminders.
She also added: “But if the user does not use all the features we provide, it is by no means the user’s fault. We will continue to improve the platform.”
Echo VR teaches new users how to mute other players and set personal bubbles so that others cannot get close outside the bubbles. It also allows changing the voice and pitch to conceal gender.
Rec Room can also set personal bubbles for strangers, but it allows friends to enter.
In November of this year, Rec Room began testing automatic voice review. The scope will include racial slander, sexual harassment, sex discrimination, suicide induction, etc. However, it is generally tolerant of casual and non-abusive swear words. Violating players will be quickly muted or sent off. Back to the dormitory.
These methods include “counterattack” in addition to “hiding” and “escaping.” But no solution can be perfect.
For example, although automatic speech processing helps manage a large number of users, it can also lead to false positives or under-reports, as well as further concerns about prejudice, privacy, and surveillance.
For example, manual or machine review of VR is much more difficult than processing content on social platforms. Because this is not just scanning text, but also having to deal with spoken language, gestures, movement trajectories, etc.
According to the report, Meta’s AI department, which detects Facebook’s harmful content, has moved to the AR/VR team to use AI to develop virtual avatars and hand tracking.
At least their appearance shows that developers attach importance to the problem of VR harassment. As Mary Anne Franks of the University of Miami School of Law pointed out in her paper “Illusive Desert: Inequality in Virtual and Augmented Reality”:
All our physical and virtual worlds are the products of human choice and creation. When inequalities are not recognized and resolved in the real world, they are often copied and enhanced in virtual reality. But developers can choose which aspects of our life history to change.
Since we will arrive eventually
Like everything on the Internet, there are always pros and cons, whether it’s anonymity or virtual avatar. From chat rooms in the 90s to online violence on social media platforms, we have never gotten rid of harassment.
According to a survey released by the Pew Research Center in January this year, 40% of American adults have experienced online harassment, and 25% have experienced more serious harassment, including physical threats, stalking, sexual harassment, and continuous harassment.
Nowadays, Metaverse has been mentioned repeatedly, and VR as one of the technologies is booming. Why should we pay attention to this “old problem in the new world”? Because everything will be more real than before.
When Meta announced its vision for the Metaverse, it gave us a glimpse into the future. The Metaverse will provide endless opportunities for work, entertainment, contact with others, and do more things. The dimensions of existence and senses will be unprecedentedly rich, even without distinction between virtual and reality.
Until then, how to bring rights and respect into the virtual world? VR and AR designer Andrea Zeller believes that:
Look for the paradigm of consent in the real world and propose virtual equivalents.
For example, Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communications at Stanford University, has studied VR for 20 years. His most recent study is “How people’s comfort in VR changes according to their location”, and cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall proposed four kinds of interpersonal distance as early as the 1960s.
If you look at it from the front, the medical community has been exploring how to use VR to help treat PTSD, chronic pain, ADHD, and so on. If VR can be used as an “electronic pill” to bring a lasting positive impact to reality, then negative VR harassment must also be taken seriously, which is also of practical significance.
Renee Gittins, chief executive of the video game company, pointed out: “In a medium that can have such a strong impact, harassment must be stifled in its infancy.”
We can also be as indifferent as Keanu Reeves. In an interview with the Verge, he said that he is willing to accept VR porn, where fans can have a relationship with him, “You don’t even have to be there, you can use your Digital avatars are carried out.” But this does not affect the nature of the problem-yes or no is based on subjective will.
Of course, because there is no actual physical contact, society has not yet reached the point where virtual harassment and attacks are regarded as crimes. This leads to an inconclusive situation:
In virtual reality or Metaverse, the body is not actual, but sensory feedback is actual. It does act on our brain, and the difference between it and the physical body is getting smaller and smaller.
At that time, we will use our senses to defeat the senses, just like the thalamus inhibitor in “Does the Bionic Man Dream of an Electronic Sheep?” to eliminate anger, or wave the shield and power gestures given to us by the virtual world, or refer to the real society Rules for reporting and blocking?
There is no answer yet. As more and more users flood into more and more authentic media, we can make it safer and more tolerant based on what we can do from now on.
After experiencing the QuiVr harassment in 2016, Jordan Belamire left the world that once fascinated her and decided to never go back. In fact, this kind of thing does not have to happen a second time.
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