The metaverse is quickly becoming the hottest new buzzword among tech companies in Silicon Valley. Last year CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook would rebrand as Meta, describing the metaverse as an immersive internet experience where users will feel like they are present with another person or in another place. The metaverse is intended to enable a better social experience for users, such as virtually attending a social gathering or a concert with friends. We have already seen this becoming a reality in social settings with guests attending weddings or reunions virtually and apps like FaceTime, Zoom and What’sApp allowing families and social groups to gather in a virtual setting. Miller Lite is airing it’s Super Bowl commercial this year exclusively in the metaverse in a virtual bar and many of the newest games and on-line experiences are through Oculus.
This technology is now making its way into the workplace as emerging business uses for metaverse technology, including virtual workspaces where co-workers gather to conduct meetings or interact with customers through their avatars in a virtual setting. Some of these virtual settings are as simple as attending Zoom meetings or having hybrid in-person and virtual attendance at meetings, while others can be exclusively virtual with avatars interacting in settings designed to look like traditional offices or more elaborate and casual spaces.
As metaverse technologies develop to allow increasingly immersive and realistic interactions with co-workers, customers, friends and online strangers, boundaries between the real world and the metaverse begin to blur. With a wide range of possible virtual experiences ranging from business meetings with customers or colleagues to games played with strangers in fantastical outer space worlds, it can be unclear to users when they are acting as characters in a game and when they are interacting with others as extensions of their real world selves, and to what extent their virtual actions in the metaverse are governed by existing social norms and laws.
One growing area of concern is the emerging issue of sexual harassment in the metaverse. There are instances of beta testers “touched” by strangers while participating in virtual reality social media platforms which allow multiple users to interact in a shared virtual space. One anonymous beta tester wrote “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense.” As a way to attempt to stave off such behavior, some platforms are experimenting with “Safe Zones” which creates a protective bubble around a user’s avatar to prevent unwanted interactions.
Following a similar report of groping in a virtual reality environment in 2016, some questioned if what the user had experienced was actually groping if her body wasn’t physically touched. According to a recent white paper authored by employees of Meta’s Oculus VR division, “in immersive virtual reality (VR) environments, experiences of harassment can be exacerbated by features such as synchronous voice chat, heightened feelings of presence and embodiment, and avatar movements that can feel like violations of personal space (such as simulated touching or grabbing).” The authors conclude that “Virtual reality environments present significant challenges for managing harassment and other abusive behaviors” and propose community-led governance as one possible remedy.
On February 4th, Oculus announced that it has implemented “Personal Boundary for Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues. Personal Boundary prevents avatars from coming within a set distance of each other, creating more personal space for people and making it easier to avoid unwanted interactions…[and] will by default make it feel like there is an almost 4-foot distance between your avatar and others.” It works by halting forward movement if one avatar tried to reach not another avatar’s Personal Boundary. According to Oculus, “you won’t feel it—there is no haptic feedback. This builds upon our existing hand harassment measures that were already in place, where an avatar’s hands would disappear if they encroached upon someone’s personal space.”
If Silicon Valley’s enthusiasm proves correct and use of the metaverse grows to encompass more of our work-related daily interactions with others, users (particularly employers) should seriously weigh the risks and benefits. A growing topic will be not only whether and how to responsibly implement this technology, but whether virtual reality technology and metaverse environments should be responsible for defining and policing sexual harassment and punishing offending users, or if existing criminal and civil laws should be extended to include alleged harassment occurring in the virtual space.