How to protect users from harassment in social VR spaces

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For the ongoing series, Code Word, we’re exploring if — and how — technology can protect individuals against sexual assault and harassment, and how it can help and support survivors.

Imagine it’s your first time entering a social virtual reality experience. You quickly set up an avatar, choosing feminine characteristics because you identify as female. You choose an outfit that seems appropriate, and when you’re done, you spawn into a space. You have no idea where you are or who is around you. As you’re getting your sea legs in this new environment, all the other avatars look at you and notice that you’re different. Strange avatars quickly approach you, asking inappropriate questions about your real-life body; touching and kissing you without your consent. You try blocking them, but you don’t know how. You remove your headset fearing that you don’t belong in this community.

New worlds, old problems

The above role play is based on various accounts of avatar harassment in social VR applications, reported by women in recent years. In 2016, Taylor Lorenz, a staff tech writer currently at The Atlantic, garnered attention from various social VR start-ups by sharing her experience in a virtual reality chat room. In an essay for Mic, she describes being greeted with unsolicited “virtual kisses” and asked about her real-life body by multiple users, noting that she felt ripped from the virtual world and transported back to middle school.