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Microsoft, Meta tackle harassment in virtual worlds

Microsoft and Meta have introduced personal space in their virtual worlds to combat the downside of virtual reality, sexual harassment and other bad behavior.

Microsoft and Meta, formerly Facebook, are enforcing personal space in their virtual worlds to prevent groping, harassment and other unwanted sexual advances between avatars.

This month, Microsoft launched the anti-harassment protections for its AltspaceVR platform and Meta for its Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues VR. The safety measures include stopping avatars from getting uncomfortably close.

"Safety within the environment must be part of the foundation," wrote Alex Kipman, a Microsoft Technical Fellow, in a blog post. "We have a responsibility to establish guardrails."

The protections will become particularly important if Microsoft expects to eventually make virtual reality commonplace in its collaboration tools for business, which is hypersensitive to sexual harassment in the workplace.

To further lessen the chances of bad behavior, Microsoft will close AltspaceVR's social hubs, which are public spaces where anyone can join and interact. The company will implement other safety measures like automatically muting new attendees joining events, increasing moderation and requiring a Microsoft account to use the product's VR social spaces.

Meta executive Vivek Sharma wrote that Horizon's four-foot personal boundary builds upon a previous anti-harassment measure that made users' hands disappear if they got too close to another user's avatar.

Tech companies have touted VR collaboration to encourage office camaraderie between remote and office workers. However, VR's sense of presence can lead to harassment. Vendors need to address the problem before VR becomes mainstream, said Amy Kim, CEO of VR events company Jugo.

"It isn't an option to let a few bad actors ruin the experience for others," she said. "Instead, we need to put the right measures in place, address emerging concerns and work together as an industry to establish best practices."

Accenture's VR workspace
Consulting firm Accenture built its VR workspace, the 'Nth Floor,' on Microsoft's AltspaceVR platform.

New social networks centered around VR need established rules and norms, said 451 Research analyst Raul Castanon. Failing to implement protections early could lead to problems similar to the Zoombombing that haunted Zoom in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zoombombing is a harassment tactic in which uninvited attendees join and disrupt a video conference.

Microsoft and Meta have positioned the AltspaceVR and Horizon platforms as having enterprise use. Last year, Meta put a Horizon-based VR collaboration product, called Workrooms, into open beta, selling it as a place where workers can meet and give presentations.

Microsoft has an AltspaceVR preview program allowing businesses to host live events in VR. The company also used the platform to help consulting firm Accenture build a virtual working space called the Nth Floor.

The two companies are not the only collaboration vendors aiming to bring office work into the virtual space. BlueJeans by Verizon will launch a virtual office product this year, while Cisco plans to release an augmented-reality version of Webex at an undetermined date.

All these firms are vying for pieces of expanding markets. IDC estimates worldwide spending on augmented reality and virtual reality will hit $73 billion in 2024. More broadly, Constellation Research believes the economy within an interconnected metaverse that could grow to $21.7 trillion by 2030.

Mike Gleason is a reporter covering unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily NewsWalpole TimesSharon Advocate and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as a local editor for Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.

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