Two Virtual Reality Designers Discuss Techniques and Strategies for Implementing Safer Social VR (Including an Example from the Forthcoming Facebook Horizon Platform)

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Back at the start of November, two VR designers, Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller, wrote an article for Immerse on aspects of designing safer social VR spaces. That article was recently reprinted on The Next Web news site, titled How to protect users from harassment in social VR spaces, and it’s an excellent read on the subject, which I highly recommend.

In particular, female-identifying users of social VR platforms are often the victims of sexual harassment, research conducted by Jessica Outlaw and others has shown. Michelle Cortese writes:

As female designers working in VR, my co-worker Andrea Zeller and I decided to join forces on our own time and write a comprehensive paper. We wrote about the potential threat of virtual harassment, instructing readers on how to use body sovereignty and consent ideology to design safer virtual spaces from the ground up. The text will soon become a chapter in the upcoming book: Ethics in Design and Communication: New Critical Perspectives (Bloomsbury Visual Arts: London).

After years of flagging potentially-triggering social VR interactions to male co-workers in critiques, it seemed prime time to solidify this design practice into documented research. This article is the product of our journey.

The well-known immersive aspect of virtual reality—the VR hardware and software tricking your brain into believing what it is seeing is “real”—means that when someone threatens or violates your personal space, or your virtual body, it feels real.

This is particularly worrisome as harassment on the internet is a long-running issue; from trolling in chat rooms in the ’90s to cyber-bullying on various social media platforms today. When there’s no accountability on new platforms, abuse has often followed — and the innate physicality of VR gives harassers troubling new ways to attack. The visceral quality of VR abuse can be especially triggering for survivors of violent physical assault.

Cortese and Zeller stress that safety needs to be built into our social VR environments: “Safety and inclusion need to be virtual status quo.”

The article goes into a discussion of proxemics, which I will not attempt to summarize here; I would instead strongly urge you to go to the source and read it all for yourself, as it is very clearly laid out. A lot of research has already been done in this area, which can now be applied as we build new platforms.

And one of those new social VR platforms just happens to be Facebook Horizon, a project on which both Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller have been working!

What I did find interesting in this report was an example the authors provided, of how this user safety research is being put to use in the Facebook Horizon social VR platform, which will be launching in closed beta early this year. Apparently, there will be a button you can press to immediately remove yourself from a situation where you do not feel comfortable:

We designed the upcoming Facebook Horizon with easy-to-access shortcuts for moments when people would need quick-action remediation in tough situations. A one-touch button can quickly remove you from a situation. You simply touch the button and you land in a space where you can take a break and access your controls to adjust your experience.

Once safely away from the harasser, you can optionally choose to mute, block, or report them to the admins while in your “safe space”:

Handy features such as these, plus Facebook’s insistence on linking your personally-identifying account on the Facebook social network to your Facebook Horizon account (thus making it very difficult to be anonymous), will probably go a long way towards making women (and other minorities such as LGBTQ folks) feel safer in Facebook Horizon.

Of course, griefers, harassers and trolls will always try to find ways around the safeguards put in place, such as setting up dummy alternative accounts (Second Life and other virtual worlds have had to deal with such problems for years). We can also expect “swatting”-type attacks, where innocent people are falsely painted as troublemakers using the legitimate reporting tools provided (something we’ve unfortunately already seen happen in a few instances in Sansar).

Some rather bitter lessons on what does and doesn’t work have been learned in the “wild, wild west” of earlier-generation virtual worlds and social VR platforms, such as the never-ending free-for-all of Second Life (and of course, the cheerful anarchy of VRChat, especially in the days before they were forced to implement their nuanced Trust and Safety System due to a tidal wave of harassment, trolling and griefing).

But I am extremely glad to see that Facebook has hired VR designers like Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller, and that the company is treating user safety in social VR as a non-negotiable tenet from the earliest design stages of the Horizon project, instead of scrambling to address it as an after-thought as VRChat did. More social VR platforms need to do this.

I’m quite looking forward to seeing how this all plays out in 2020! I and many other observers will be watching Facebook Horizon carefully to see how well all these new security and safety features roll out and are embraced by users.

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Editorial: We Are the Problem and We Are the Solution

I remember when I was first invited into the Sansar closed beta in December of 2016. That early community consisted of content creators who had been contacted by Linden Lab and asked if they wanted to take part in the beta test, and many of us eagerly accepted the invitation, even going so far as to recommend other people that LL could contact to add to the community.

It was a heady, exciting time. People were feeling energized and invigorated by the challenges of working on a brand-new, VR-capable platform. We used Slack as our main means of communication, as well as meetups in Sansar, and together we worked to test things to see what would break, and to report bugs and make suggestions for improvement to the team at Linden Lab. Jenn was out first community manager, working double-duty between Second Life and Sansar in those earliest days.

It’s now August 2019, thirty-two months later. Slack was replaced by Discord. Jenn went back to Second Life full-time, and was replaced as Sansar community manager by Eliot, who in turn was replaced by Galileo. Many new features have been added to Sansar in that time.

Many of the people who were heavily invested in the earlier days of Sansar have pulled back, or pulled out of Sansar completely. Each had their own personal reasons for doing so. Some left because they were frustrated at what they saw as slow development of features that they considered fundamental. Some left because they didn’t like the way that Linden Lab was running things with respect to fees and payments. Some left because of harassers, trolls and griefers, either on the Discord or in-world. Some left because they felt they weren’t earning enough money to make their work worthwhile. Others left because they just felt burned out, and they needed a break, and they simply never came back. And all of these are perfectly legitimate reasons. Communities grow and change over time. Some people leave; others join.

But I have noticed a particularly troubling and dispiriting trend in the Sansar Discord channels lately. In the early days, disputes and arguments were relatively few, and (usually) quickly settled. But the number of disputes, attacks, arguments, and just overall ill-will has risen sharply in recent months. People seem to have shorter tempers, and they seem to be much more likely to start attacking each other personally. And I’m as guilty of this as anybody else.

The earliest members of the Sansar community knew that things were not perfect, but almost all of us felt that Linden Lab was working hard and in good faith to fix the bugs and add the features we wanted to see for Sansar to be a success, if not immediately, then in the future. But now, it almost feels like everybody’s patience has been stretched too thin. We (and I do include myself) are quicker to take offense, quicker to lash out, and quicker to assume ill intentions from the actions of other people and from Linden Lab itself.

This is a problem that can’t be resolved just by moderation on the Discord and ejecting troublemakers in-world. Galileo and Lacie and Harley are good moderators and bouncers, but they can’t be around 24/7/365, and they shouldn’t have to be.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

The problem is us. I—we—all of us—need to stop and look in the mirror before pointing fingers at other Sansar users, or at Linden Lab. We all need to address what we do in that infinitesimal gap between the trigger incident that made us upset or angry, and the response we choose to make. The response we CHOOSE to make. Hiding behind a username or an avatar is no excuse.

The solution starts with us. We need to communicate in ways that build people up instead of ripping them down. We need to disagree in ways where we don’t attack other people. We need a return to manners, civility, and etiquette. We need to emulate the behaviour we want to see in newcomers to our community. We need to become better people.

Behavioural scientist and researcher Jessica Outlaw has started a nine-part series on how to build a strong culture in social VR. So far, she has posted the first 3 parts:

Please take the time to read Jessica’s articles, and please reflect on what we can do, individually and collectively, to make the Sansar community the best place it can be. We are the problem, but we are also the solution.

Jessica Outlaw’s Survey on Virtual Harassment: Half of All Women Surveyed Have Experienced At Least One Instance of Sexual Harassment in Social VR

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Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Jessica Outlaw, whose previous research on women and social VR I talked about previously, has published the results of her latest research: a survey of over 600 people of all genders on their experience with harassment in social VR.

She reports:

Harassment is commonplace in VR. In past qualitative research, I studied sexual harassment of women. In my new project, in partnership with Pluto VR, I surveyed 600+ people who regularly use VR (Rift, Vive, PSVR, or Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality). It turns out that all genders are subject to multiple types of harassment in VR:

49% of women reported having experienced at least one instance of sexual harassment

30% of male respondents reported racist or homophobic comments

20% of males have experienced violent comments or threats

The full report can be viewed here. She summarizes her findings as follows:

  • People want to be with their friends in VR
  • 70% of those who have used multiplayer VR agree that it’s better with people they know
  • People use single-player apps to avoid harassment
  • Many avoid social VR spaces entirely

Thanks to Enrico Speranza who told me about this report!

Why Women Don’t Like Social VR: Interview with Jessica Outlaw

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Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Enrico Speranza in my RyanSchultz.com Facebook group alerted me to a very interesting podcast put out by ResearchVR, who describe themselves as follows:

We are three Cognitive Scientists discussing Virtual Reality and Cognitive Research, Industry News, and Design Implications! We actively research different aspects of the field, and are involved in various companies related to the topic of VR. With this podcast, we hope to use our commentary to bridge the gap between news and established science. We break down complex topics, discuss the current trends and their economical impacts, and broadcast our views on VR.

The podcast episode in question was an in-depth, 1 hour 15 minute interview with Jessica Outlaw:

Behavioral Scientist Jessica Outlaw is an outspoken Social Scientist in the field of VR User Experience Design. She recently published an Inductive Qualitative study with Beth Duckles, PhD about the experiences of “Millennial, tech-savvy women” in Social VR applications (Altspace, High Fidelity, Facebook Spaces, etc).

In this episode, we talk embodied cognition, implicit biases, gender differences in social behavior and navigation in an unfamiliar environment, as well as the questions the paper raises up about inclusivity and approachability in design.

This is a long, wide-ranging interview touching on a lot of topics. Of particular note is what Jessica has to say about her research on women’s experiences in social VR applications. She wanted to know what tech-savvy younger women, new to social VR, had to say about their experiences.

Most of them found the social dynamics to be very disconcerting. The women had no idea what the social norms and expectations were in the social VR experiences they visited over a thirty-minute period (Rec Room, AltspaceVR, Facebook Spaces). Many women felt unsafe; some women felt that their personal spaces were invaded by other avatars. Talking to another person in social VR wasn’t seen as an attractive alternative to other forms of communication.

One of the four recommendations Jessica makes in her research report is that privacy must be the default in social VR applications, for women to feel safe. Another recommendation was to make social VR enticing and fun to do, and let the community form around their interests, as this leads to better behaviour overall.

Near the end of the podcast, Jessica and the ResearchVR co-hosts discuss a recent news story where a woman was harassed in a VR application called QuiVR.

I was also interested to hear that Jessica also did some work on a project for High Fidelity last year, around the question of what makes people feel welcome in an online community, and what’s appealing to people.

Here’s a link to the ResearchVR podcast. And here’s a link to a card series on Medium that outlines Jessica’s research findings, with quotes from the women interviewed. You can also request that Jessica’s full research report be emailed to you at her website.

Jessica also talked about her follow-up study, a user survey where she got over 600 responses. I’ll be very interested to read what she learns from her ongoing social VR research.