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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Spinview: A Brief Introduction (Yet Another YARTVRA)

Yawn. Here we go again…

YARTVRA: Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App. 

And yet another boring, cookie-cutter corporate website where it appears the owners haven’t even bothered to swap out the lifeless, generic default clip art. And yet another platform which is only nebulously described by its company:

You can use Spinview’s social VR space to immerse your team in a real-world learning environment for effective and engaging training without them leaving their desks, let alone their city. In our environment up to 8 people can focus and communicate with each-other in real time. They can work together, train together, research, plan and more. You can create a workspace designed to encourage a culture of sharing without the cost and time taken to get people physically in the same office. With Spinview, 8 heads can easily be better than one.

Again, absolutely zero technical details of their platform, and no mention of which VR hardware is supported. Just a lot of handwaving, and a cookie-cutter contact form, complete with more uninspiring clipart and vague suggestions of possible corporate uses for the Spinview platform:

VRFocus reported in November 2018 that the company acquired Agority, another social VR platform I had never heard of before:

Spinview, a company that concentrates on VR for business use has purchased immersive social platform Agority as part of its continued expansion.

The aim of the purchase is to offer businesses a new way to communicate and collaborate, letting teams inhabit a virtual area together, even if they are miles apart.

And Spinview’s corporate blog has not been updated since October 2018 (no news of the acquisition). Since then, radio silence. Who knows what is going on behind the scenes. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Spinview, like all the other YARTVRA I have covered on this blog, is having some trouble signing up paying customers. The list of companies who want to sell VR products supporting remote workteams is getting rather ridiculously long (you can see a list of other YARTVRA platforms in this earlier blogpost).

Let me say this again: High Fidelity has already decided that there’s not enough corporate interest in a remote workteams app to continue operations, and they are essentially shutting down as of January 15th, 2020. If a company that has raised $72.9 million in venture capital and has an actual working platform can’t make it happen, companies that can’t even bother to keep their websites up-to-date and demonstrate to their potential customers that they have any sort of deliverable product are doomed to failure.

Alloverse: A Brief Introduction

Alloverse (which has not yet been released) is a Swedish social VR company with an extremely ambitious goal:

The goal for the Alloverse is to lay the foundations for the “3D internet”: introducing a set of federated, distributed and open protocols to supercede HTTP, building a set of open source tools and applications that are compatible with those protocols, and fostering application development on top of these.

Alloverse is distributed by design. No single company can own the Alloverse, just like no single company can own the Web. Alloverse lets you create your own places, and use software from all over the internet within them. It is not a single platform where a single entity sets the rules.

Among the intended uses of the open source platform are:

Virtual classrooms. The social XR aspect of the Alloverse allows students and teachers to come together in a space. The application platform aspect of the Alloverse allows a wide variety of educational software to run concurrently and collaboratively in this space. 

Collaborative construction. By building your CAD, fashion or art creation application on top of Alloverse APIs, the app is automatically collaborative. Multiple people can work on pieces together, and you could even run multiple creation apps in orchestration to see your full creation in one go. One app could be used to create a garment, while another to create the spaces in which it will be shown off; and they’d both run at the same time.

Pair programming. Since apps can run on any computer anywhere, you could collect programmers, IDEs, and runtime monitoring from many different servers and all over the world all into the same space: perfect for a remote organization.

Business meetings. Bringing people and instrumentation together into dedicated spaces, saving airfare and increasing understanding.

Alloverse is obviously marketing itself to the furry community 😉

If the Alloverse project sparks your curiosity, and you want to help get it running, the Alloverse team would love to hear from you!

The Alloverse is an open source work in progress. If you’re an interaction designer, programmer or visual artist interested in the frontiers of HCI, we’d love to collaborate with you! Send us an email at: info@alloverse.com

They also have an Updates blog you can follow, which gives a bit more of the background of the project.

SculptrVR: A Brief Introduction

SculptrVR is a multiscale, collaborative voxel sculpting tool, available for the Oculus Rift, Quest, and Go VR headsets, and PlayStation VR. The platform is also available on Steam.

Here’s a one-minute promotional video from YouTube:

There’s not a lot of info on their official website, so if you want to learn more about SculptrVR, you can follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or join their Discord server.

Yet another addition to my comprehensive list of social VR/virtual worlds!