Meta says ‘personal boundaries’ on the horizon to avoid virtual groping

7 Feb 2022

Image: Meta

A new feature will create a default four-foot distance between avatars in Meta’s VR spaces Horizon Worlds and Venues.

After reports of groping in Horizon, the virtual reality spaces created by Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook has decided to introduce a new feature to help users avoid unwanted interactions.

Horizon Worlds is a virtual online space created by Meta that can be accessed using Oculus VR headsets, where people can meet other VR users and design their own world. Another service, Horizon Venues, allows users to host VR events such as gigs or shows.

Vivek Sharma, vice-president of Horizon, announced the new Personal Boundary feature on the Oculus blog on Friday (4 February) after Meta came under fire for reports of groping on its VR platform.

In late November, a Horizon beta tester reported on a Facebook group for Horizon Worlds that her avatar had been groped by a stranger in the virtual world.

“Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote in the post seen by The Verge. “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behaviour which made me feel isolated.”

With the new feature, users of Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues will feel like there is an “almost four-foot distance” between their avatars and others, Sharma wrote. Meta is trialling the feature, which will apply by default, to see how it affects people’s experiences in the VR space.

“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. You won’t feel it – there is no haptic feedback,” Sharma explained.

The new feature builds upon a set of existing harassment measures in place, according to Sharma, where “an avatar’s hands would disappear if they encroached upon someone’s personal space”.

As Meta looks to develop its vision for the metaverse, rules such as this may set behavioural norms in the future. Meta said that it will “explore the possibility” of allowing people to edit the size of their personal boundaries in the future, with added controls and UI changes.

The addition of personal boundaries means that users on VR devices will now have to extend their arms to be able to high-five or fist-bump others in Horizon Worlds or Horizon Venues.

“We believe Personal Boundary is a powerful example of how VR has the potential to help people interact comfortably. It’s an important step, and there’s still much more work to be done,” Sharma added.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic