Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual reality business is to introduce a mandatory distance between people’s digital avatars after warnings that the social media tycoon’s plans for a metaverse will lead to a new wave of online harassment.
Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is making a multibillion-dollar bet on VR as the next source of growth for his empire but his strategy has already been dogged by warnings that virtual worlds are rife with abuse.
In December a user testing Horizon Worlds, a VR app owned by Zuckberg’s Meta business, complained of being groped online and called for a protective bubble around their avatar, or digital representation of themselves. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” said the user.
Meta announced on Friday that it is introducing personal boundaries on two VR apps: Horizon Worlds, where people can meet fellow VR users and design their own world; and Horizon Venues, which hosts VR events such as comedy shows or music gigs. The company said the distance between people will be the VR equivalent of four feet.
“A personal boundary prevents anyone from invading your avatar’s personal space. If someone tries to enter your personal boundary, the system will halt their forward movement as they reach the boundary,” said the company. Meta is introducing the 4ft boundary as a default setting and will consider further changes such as letting people set their own boundaries.
“We think this will help to set behavioral norms – and that’s important for a relatively new medium like VR,” said Meta.
The UK data watchdog has also said it is seeking clarification from Meta about parental controls on the company’s popular Oculus Quest 2 VR headset, as campaigners warning that it could breach an online children’s safety code. The Information Commissioner’s Office said it would talk to Meta after research by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a campaign group, flagged multiple instances of abuse on VRChat, a top-selling social app for Oculus headset users.
Zuckerberg renamed his company from Facebook Inc to Meta last year in a signal that the future of his business lies in the metaverse, a concept where the physical and digital worlds combine via virtual and augmented reality.
Although the notion of a fully fledged metaverse is many years away, Meta already announced a $50m (£37m) investment program to ensure the concept meets regulatory and legal concerns, distributing the money among organizations and academic institutions such as Seoul National University and Women in Immersive Tech.