A Slippery Slope? Sony Files Patent for Shadow Banning Misbehaving Social VR Users

Shadow banning: the practice of blocking or partially blocking a user or their content from an online community so that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned.

—Source: Wikipedia

Much has already been written about the behaviour monitoring system in the upcoming Facebook Horizon social VR platform, used to prevent inappropriate behaviour, such as this RoadtoVR article from last August:

First, all the users in Horizon are involuntarily recording each other. The last few minutes of everything that users see and hear is recorded on a rolling basis. Facebook says this recording is stored on the headset itself, unless one user reports another, at which point the recording may be sent to Facebook to check for rule violations. The company says that the recording will be deleted once the report is concluded.

Second, anyone you interact with can invite an invisible observer from Facebook to come surveil you and your conversations in real-time to make sure you don’t break any rules. The company says this can happen when one user reports another or when other “signals” are detected, such as several players blocking or muting each other in quick succession. Users will not be notified when they’re being watched.

And third, everything you say, do, and build in Horizon is subject to Facebook’s Community Standards. So while in a public space you’re free to talk about anything you want, in Horizon there a many perfectly legal topics that you can’t discuss without fear of punitive action being taken against your account.

But Sony has filed a patent for a similar way of monitoring users in social VR, where you won’t necessarily be notified if you run afoul of the rules. The abstract for the patent reads as follows:

Shadow banning a participant within a social VR system includes: receiving and forwarding an identity of the participant, who may be shadow banned; recognizing and tracking inappropriate behaviors including inappropriate language and comments, inappropriate gestures, and inappropriate movements; receiving and processing the recognized and tracked inappropriate behaviors of the participant; generating a safety rating based on the processed inappropriate behaviors; comparing the safety rating to a threshold value; and outputting a signal to label the participant as a griefer and shadow ban the griefer when the safety rating is greater than the threshold value.

So, it sounds as though, if somebody makes an obscene gesture towards another avatar in a future social VR platform where this system is implemented (e.g. flips them the bird, or grinds up against them in a sexual way), that they would then be shadow banned, perhaps even becoming invisible to other users. What sets this proposed system apart from Facebook Horizon’s is that it would be triggered WITHOUT input from someone who reports the griefer.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Who is to decide what is inappropriate gesture, or inappropriate behaviour? The rudeness of various hand gestures varies by culture around the world; will American rules and codes of conduct take precedence over those of, say, Italy or India, which might differ? Can you be flagged just for staring at another person for longer than a few seconds? What is the dispute mechanism if you discover you are shadow banned, and will it be similarly automated? This is just a slippery slope, people.

An article about the patent by Jamie Feltham on UploadVR states:

Interestingly, one proposal for this solution includes “a system configured entirely with hardware” that specifically mentions tracking the user’s movement and even their gaze. Presumably, these would be features included in the headset itself. Another suggestion mentions using an “agent” placed within the application to judge any possible offenses.

While features like these may be necessary as VR expands, it also calls into question the security and privacy of any user’s actions within that social VR experience. Figuring out that balance will no doubt be a challenge for social VR app makers in the future.

It’s also interesting to note that Sony filed this document after PSVR’s release in 2016 and that the company doesn’t really have any big social apps to its own name on the platform. Could this be an indicator that Sony is indeed planning to launch a more robust social VR feature for the upcoming PS5 VR headset? We did report last month that the company had renewed the trademark for its PS3-era social VR service, PlayStation Home, so anything’s possible.

So perhaps Sony has a future social VR platform for PSVR users up its sleeve?

Another question which arises is: if Sony’s patent is awarded, will they be able to go after platforms like Facebook Horizon, which might use similar enough features to institute patent infringement? The mind boggles at the possibilities.

One thing is clear: the social VR marketplace is evolving so quickly that laws and regulations are struggling to play catch up. Facebook, for one, is collecting all kinds of personal data about your use of Oculus VR devices such as the Quest 2 (here’s the complete list, just for the Oculus app on your iPhone).

The more data collected and analyzed, the greater the chances that you could be branded a griefer and shadow banned!

In the future, if you look at another avatar the wrong way, you might land up shadow banned! (Image source: What Is Shadow Banning? on imge)

Thanks for Rob Crasco for alerting me to this patent!

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