Metaverse builders are battling a mystery about sexual harassment

Nina Jane Patel felt trapped and threatened when the male avatars shut themselves in, intimidated her with verbal abuse, touched her avatar against her will and photographed the incident.

The abuse took place in a virtual world, but it felt real to her, and this kind of story causes serious headaches for architects of the metaverse – the 3D, immersive version of the Internet developed by Microsoft and Meta.

“I went into the common room and almost immediately three or four male avatars came very close to me, so there was a sense of confinement,” Patel told AFP.

“Their voices began to harass me verbally and sexually with sexual insinuations,” the London-based entrepreneur said.

“They touched and they groped for my avatar without my consent. And while they were doing so, another avatar took selfie pictures.”

Patel, whose company develops child-friendly metaverse experiences, says it was “nothing short of sexual assault”.

Her story and others like it have prompted soul-searching about the nature of harassment in the virtual world and a search for an answer to the question: can an avatar be sexually abused?

– Fool the brain –

“VR (virtual reality) is basically dependent on tricking your brain into perceiving the virtual world around it as real,” says Katherine Cross, a PhD student at the University of Washington who has worked on online harassment.

“When it comes to harassment in virtual reality – for example, a sexual assault – it can mean that your body first treats it as real before your conscious mind can catch up with it and confirm that this is not happening physically.”

Her research suggests that despite the virtual space, such victims cause harm in the real world.

Patel stressed this point and explained that her ordeal briefly continued outside the constructed online space.

She said she eventually took off her VR headset after not getting her attackers to stop, but she could still hear them through the speakers in her living room.

The male avatars taunted her and said “do not pretend you did not like it” and “that’s why you came here”.

The trial took place in November last year in the virtual world “Horizon Venues”, built by Meta, Facebook’s parent company.

The room hosts virtual events such as concerts, conferences and basketball games.

The legal implications are still unclear, although Cross suggests that the laws on sexual harassment in some countries may be extended to cover this type of action.

– Protective bubbles –

Meta and Microsoft – the two Silicon Valley giants committed to the meta-verse – have sought to quell the controversy by developing tools that keep unknown avatars away.

Microsoft has also removed dating sites from their Altspace VR metaverse.

“I think the harassment problem is one that is actually solved because people themselves choose which platform they use,” says Louis Rosenberg, an engineer who developed the first augmented reality system in 1992 for US Air Force research laboratories. .

The entrepreneur, who has since founded a company specializing in artificial intelligence, told AFP he was more concerned about how companies will monetize virtual space.

He says a model based on advertising is likely to lead companies to capture all kinds of personal data, from users’ eye movements and heart rate to their real-time interactions.

“We need to change the business model,” he says, suggesting that security would be better protected if funding came from subscriptions.

However, technology companies have made themselves fantastically wealthy through a business model based on targeted advertising refined by large data flows.

And the industry is already looking to get ahead of the curve by setting its own standards.

The Oasis Consortium, a think tank with ties to several technology companies and advertisers, has developed some safety standards that it believes are good for the metaverse era.

“When platforms identify content that poses a real-world risk, it’s important to inform law enforcement,” says one of their standards.

But that leaves the main question unresolved: how do platforms define “real-world risk”?

lul-elc / jxb / kjm

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