Creating safety in virtual spaces is a mission being tackled by the XR Association (XRA), a trade group of big tech companies that make virtual and augmented reality gear and software. Virtual spaces are poised to go mainstream. Found in these environments: virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and, yes, online harassment, something the XR Association is targeting head-on.
Behind the Fight, Bringing the Protection
The companies behind XRA are big players, including Microsoft, HTS, Samsung, and Facebook’s Oculus. Per Fast Company, XRA has included a new set of best practices to a set of guidelines recently released to XR device developers. The Fast Company article stated this is “the first time the industry has coalesced in an actual trade group to spread best practices and educate the public.”
On December 20, XRA CEO Elizabeth Hyman posted on LinkedIn, “XR Association published an update to its Developer’s Guide, titled, Guidance for Culture, Conduct, and Content in XR Environments, which offers design guidance for creating respectful, safe, and inclusive immersive experiences.”
Hyman added that this addition is “further progress towards XRA’s mission of promoting the responsible development and thoughtful advancement of XR technology globally.”
Harassment in XR
Online harassment – from verbal harassment to virtual groping – extends to virtual reality. A new study by research group The Extended Mind revealed that nearly 50% of women that consistently use VR spaces experience harassment.
In a 2016 article for Medium, Jordan Belamire recounts trying VR for the first time. The heady experience spurred Belamire to move into multi-player games. It was here she first encountered harassment, the impacts of which were just as they would be in real life.
“So, there I was shooting down zombies alongside another real-time player named BigBro442,” Belamire recounted in her article My First Virtual Reality Groping. “The other players could hear me when I spoke, my voice the only indication of my femaleness. Otherwise, my avatar looked identical to them.”
What happened next stunned Belamire. “Suddenly, BigBro442’s disembodied helmet faced me dead-on. His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest.”
In recently released guidelines, XRA called attention to the issue, “While harassment and safety risks in VR can be similar to those expressed in 2D social spaces, VR users may experience abusive behavior in a more bodily or visceral fashion.”
AR can also enable bullying. While many have had their AR experiences limited to the harmless mobile game Pokemon Go, other AR-based spaces differ. As a form of harassment, users have spread hate-ridden graffiti in public spaces, on monuments and people’s homes through digital overlays.
What XRA’s Planning
XRA is making progress in the consumer market and becoming more visible in workplaces. And with the advent of digital glasses bringing XR more into daily use, there are even more opportunities for harassment. “Our goal is to have that collective effort to get ahead of that,” XRA CEO Liz Hyman told Fast Company. “We want these environments to be safe, respectful, and inclusive.”
Part of XRA’s plans is to educate users about their behavior, and its impact in XR social spaces. Getting XR product creators onboard with building in protective elements is another goal.
The new guidelines state, “When building product tools, we should aim to create strong protection and reporting mechanisms, not diminish them, for a safer, more positive experience for everyone.”