Harassment is a big one, so Meta has a new effort to address it by setting up personal boundaries by default, putting avatars at arms’ length in Horizon Worlds.
This environment is akin to a prototype or starting point for the company’s version of the metaverse, so if it hopes to promote it as a positive, family-friendly place, protecting people there is paramount.
In a blog post published Friday, Vivek Sharma, vice president of Horizon, explained, “Personal Boundary will begin rolling out today everywhere inside of Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues, and will by default make it feel like there is an almost four-foot distance between your avatar and others.…If someone tries to enter your Personal Boundary, the system will halt their forward movement as they reach the boundary.”
Meta already offers several safety tools, including a similar feature called “Safe Zone” — though that’s more of a personal defense mechanism users can trigger in the event of a high-risk situation. It cuts off all interaction, whether physical contact or chat. In contrast, the new feature merely keeps the avatars a bit separated. Users can still talk and even reach out to high five each other.
In November, just before Horizon Worlds’ December launch, a beta tester reported a groping incident when a stranger violated her avatar. In Meta’s review of the matter, it noted that the tester didn’t use its safety tools. At the time, Sharma called the situation “absolutely unfortunate,” and pledged to make it easier for users to protect themselves.
As it is, numerous psychological studies show that online behavior can do real world harm — including Meta’s own internal research, according to whistleblower Frances Haugen, whose leaked documents indicated social media has negative effects on teens’ self-esteem. In other cases, it’s been well-reported that cyber bullying, online harassment, doxxing and more can ruin lives.
That’s in the 2D internet. In an immersive environment designed to give people a sense of presence, threatening behavior can likewise feel more real and alarming.
This isn’t a new phenomenon in virtual reality or gaming environments, where people live out fantasies and dress their characters to suit. But digital fashion purveyors may come to find this prospect bracing as well. That would be disastrous, particularly for Meta, which prioritizes fashion in the metaverse.
Meta appears to be facing a reckoning, as it grapples with sharply falling shares after its latest earnings report. Instilling confidence in its systems — and indeed, its vision of the future — has never been more important, so it’s not simply a matter of safeguarding people, but safeguarding itself.