In the real world, the idea of personal space is ingrained from a young age and enforced mainly by unspoken interpersonal contract and subtle social pressure. In the world of virtual reality, on the other hand, Facebook parent Meta is now using software enforce a four-foot zone of “personal space” for each avatar in its metaverse-style social spaces.
As detailed in a recent blog post, Meta’s Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues spaces now include a default personal boundary that “prevents avatars from coming within a set distance of each other, creating more personal space for people and making it easier to avoid unwanted interactions.”
The system in effect sets up an invisible cylinder with a two-foot radius that surrounds each avatar; if user movement would cause two cylinders to overlap, “the system will halt their forward movement as they reach the boundary” without any other overt feedback. Two users will be able to jointly reach outside their personal boundary for interactions like a high-five or fist-bump, Meta writes. Having the system on by default will “help to set behavioral norms—and that’s important for a relatively new medium like VR,” Meta writes.
Not a new problem
The new announcement comes a few months after a New York Times story calling attention to the problem of “harassment and assaults” in the VR world. But the general issue is much older than that, with writers making public complaints of virtual groping since at least 2016, when affordable consumer-grade virtual reality was still a new and much-hyped concept.
Ars’ own Sam Machkovech dealt with some creepy behavior in VR social app Rec Room back in 2017, using the nascent game’s built-in tools to control his personal space. Rec Room has continued to update its moderation policies and tools in the years since, including automatic voice moderation intended to ensure that “Rec Room is a fun and welcoming place for people from all walks of life,” as the developers put it.
In early December, The Verge reported that a Horizon beta tester posted on Facebook that they were groped by a stranger and that “there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza.” A Facebook representative said that “unfortunate” incident happened in part because the tester didn’t use built-in safety features, including the ability to block problematic users.
Meta’s recent personal-space announcement makes reference to “existing hand harassment measures that were already in place,” but it’s unclear what those measures entailed or when they were first implemented. Meta was not available to immediately respond to a request for comment on this matter.
[Update: A Meta spokesperson offered Ars the following statement: “Personal Boundary builds upon our existing harassment measures that were already in place – for example, where an avatar’s hands would disappear if they encroached upon someone’s personal space. When we launched Horizon Worlds as an invite-only beta in 2020 we knew this was just the beginning and over time we would be iterating and improving based on community feedback. We’re constantly shipping new features based on people’s feedback, including this one.]
In any case, default personal-space boundaries should finally help limit the specific problem of unwelcome virtual touching in Meta’s metaverse, years after the problem was widely identified. But the new policy will do little to curb other forms of VR harassment that don’t require close proximity. And as Meta’s Andrew Bosworth reportedly acknowledged in a memo last year moderating the “toxic environment” in virtual reality “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible.”