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Bad actors using avatars to harass, assault and threaten others in virtual reality environments have forced tech companies to rethink safety in the tools they sell to companies for holding meetings in cyberspace.
The stakes are high for tech firms poised to make billions selling VR software and customers who believe remote workers would benefit from collaborating with colleagues in a virtual space. Nevertheless, businesses are unlikely to embrace virtual places that aren't off-limits to predators.
Studies show the problem is real. Research firm The Extended Mind found that nearly half of the 162 women surveyed had experienced groping, stalking and catcalling while using VR to interact with others. Almost one in five of the 422 men surveyed received violent threats.
While malicious behavior doesn't physically hurt someone in the virtual world, the harassment can feel worse than when over video or phone calls because companies design virtual environments to make people feel like they're there. So, when an avatar gets in your personal space, it can feel the same as a person in real life.
"When someone [in VR] walks up to you and touches your virtual body, their hands are in your face or on your body," said Michigan State University professor Rabindra Ratan, who studies virtual meetings. "I've spoken to people in my research and just out in the world who have had really traumatic experiences."
Tech companies are tackling the problem. In February, Microsoft and Meta, formerly Facebook, announced default personal-space protections in their VR platforms to curtail groping. In Microsoft's AltspaceVR and Meta's Horizon Worlds platforms, avatars can no longer get close to each other.
An essential tool in preventing harassment in VR is control over who gets inside, through measures like email verification. Many companies request strict barriers to entry for the virtual campuses created by Virbela, which specializes in building offices and event spaces in cyberspace for businesses. To protect its employees, Virbela creates separate public areas for showing prospective customers its virtual office.
"We can set up some rooms, even within an open world, that are only accessible to some people, so no bad actors are going to get in," said Virbela co-founder Alex Howland.
Another protection is to let employees mute or make invisible malicious actors, Howland said. However, before employees can use the tools, they also need to be educated on handling offensive behavior. If employees don't know a tool exists or how to use it, they'll have little recourse to harassment.
Companies trying to create a safe virtual space will have to protect without Big Brother-like surveillance. Recording every interaction and conversation could prevent people from freely socializing to build bonds with other workers. Virbela, AltspaceVR and Meta's Horizon Workrooms do not store recordings of chatter in their virtual worlds.
Microsoft went too far when it shut down public social areas in AltspaceVR, Ratan said. He cited the moves as an example of an overzealous response that can inhibit communication. The company said the closure was meant to make the platform safer but did not explain how.
"Certainly, toxicity and anti-social behavior is a problem in those spaces, but I think the decision to remove them altogether is maybe not wise," Ratan said. "If platforms degrade the ability to socialize, I fear they won't offer a strong alternative to remote work."
Howland suggested companies track only where avatars go in the virtual environment, to avoid over surveillance. That way, when someone reports harassment, a company can determine whether the accused followed the victim from place to place, was in the exact location at the time of the incident and got too close to the accuser.
"Just like you might have security footage in a physical building, we can know who's in an environment together at a particular time," Howland said. He said Virbela had used such data to prove a complaint in which one user had stalked another across virtual environments.
If companies can prevent harassment, VR technology can reduce travel and real estate costs and strengthen social ties between remote and in-office employees.
"I think VR's way better than other types of remote work and can even be better than working in person," Ratan said. "The spaces just need to be designed very carefully."
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 News, Walpole Times, Sharon 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.