SumOf Usa nonprofit campaigning to curb the growing power of corporations sent a 21-year-old researcher into the virtual world this month.
About an hour after using the platform, her avatar was sexually assaulted during a “disorienting and confusing experience.”
The researcher, who is not mentioned by name, said: ‘It happened so quickly that I more or less distanced myself from it. One part of my brain was like WTF was going on, the other part was like this isn’t a real body, and another part was like, this is important research.”
Speaking to MailOnline, a Meta spokesperson emphasized that the researcher hadn’t enabled the Personal Boundary feature — a security tool enabled by default that prevents non-friends from coming within five feet of your avatar.
“In Horizon Worlds, Personal Boundary is enabled by default at almost 4ft for non-friends to make it easier to avoid unwanted interactions,” the spokesperson said.
“We don’t recommend turning off the safety feature on people you don’t know.”
SumOfUs, a nonprofit campaigning to curb the growing power of corporations, sent a 21-year-old researcher into the virtual world this month. About an hour after using the platform, her avatar was sexually assaulted during a “disorienting and confusing experience”
During the incident, “another user looked at a bottle of vodka and passed it around,” the report claims
What is the metaverse?
The ‘metaverse’ is a collection of virtual spaces where you can game, work and interact with other people who are not in the same physical space as you.
Facebook explained, “You can hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create and more.
“It’s not necessarily about spending more time online — it’s about making the time you spend online more meaningful.”
While Facebook is in charge with the metaverse, it explained that it is not a single product that a company can build alone.
“Like the Internet, the metaverse exists whether Facebook is there or not,” it added.
“And it’s not built overnight. Many of these products will not be fully realized until the next 10-15 years.’
Horizon Worlds was released in December by Meta and allows users to interact with others, play games and build their own virtual worlds.
It’s an early step in Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s ambition to transform the platform into a ‘metaverse’ – a collective virtual shared space with avatars of real people.
In a new report released this week, titled “Metaverse: Another cesspool of toxic content,” SumOfUs describes what happened when a young researcher tested the app with an Oculus headset.
The researcher entered with a female-looking and feminine-sounding avatar and was sexually assaulted within an hour, according to the report.
While Meta’s Personal Boundary setting is enabled by default, the researcher decided to disable it, encouraged by another user.
A SumOfUs researcher was led into a private room at a party where she was raped by a user who kept telling her to turn around so he could do it from behind while users could see outside the window – while another user in the room and passed a bottle of vodka around,” the report reads.
With Personal Boundary disabled, the other avatars were able to virtually touch the researcher’s avatar, causing her hand controllers to vibrate, providing “a very disorienting and even disturbing physical experience.”
Meta emphasizes that it has several tools to help people stay safe in virtual reality.
Horizon Worlds was released in December by Meta and allows users to get together with others, play games and build their own virtual worlds
While Meta’s Personal Boundary setting is on my default, the researcher decided to turn it off, encouraged by another user
Using the Personal Boundary Feature
Horizon Worlds users can choose from three options:
On for non-friends: The default setting – your personal boundary is set at a distance of about 4 feet (1.2 m) between your avatar and that of someone not on your friends list
On for everyone: Your personal boundary is set at a distance of about 1.2 meters between your avatar and others
Out: Your personal boundary of approximately 1.2m is disabled, but Meta still provides a small personal boundary to prevent unwanted interactions
This includes a Safe Zone button, which allows you to block people who harass you, as well as the ability to report people or content.
“We want everyone who uses our products to have a good experience and easily find the tools that can help in situations like this so that we can investigate and take action,” said the Meta spokesperson.
However, experts have criticized Meta’s stance on security in the metavers before.
Speak with Technology Review following a similar incident in DecemberKatherine Cross, a researcher in online harassment at the University of Washington, said: “Generally speaking, when companies tackle online abuse, their solution is to outsource it to the user and say, ‘Here we give you the power to take care of yourself”.
“Ultimately, the nature of virtual reality spaces is such that they are designed to make the user think that they are physically in a certain space, that any physical action is taking place in a 3D environment.
“It’s one of the reasons emotional responses can be stronger in that space, and why VR triggers the same internal nervous system and psychological responses.”
Meta emphasizes that it has several tools to help people stay safe in virtual reality. This includes a Safe Zone button, which allows you to block people who harass you, as well as the ability to report people or content
Horizon Worlds is an early step in Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s ambition to transform the platform into a ‘metaverse’ – a collective virtual shared space with avatars of real people
While being groped in the virtual world is generally considered less serious than in the physical world, the point is that, according to another expert, it’s just another form of sexual harassment.
“I think people should keep in mind that sexual harassment never has to be something physical,” Professor Jesse Fox, a researcher on new technologies at Ohio State University, told Technology Review.
“It can be verbal, and yes, it can also be a virtual experience.”
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