Virtual and augmented reality is revolutionizing our interactions. When you put on an Oculus headset, you can choose how you look as an avatar and go into a shared virtual space to meet up with friends to hang out, play games or watch a movie. And it can feel like you’re actually there with them, despite your physical distance. During a demo of an early social VR app, a software bug made the hands of two avatars “stick” together; when the people removed their headsets, they were blushing as if they really held hands.
While being with others in VR can have positive effects, some of the negative effects during the early days started to catch our attention. Imagine it’s your first time entering a shared virtual space experience in VR. 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 the way you look in real life, coming close to 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.
This narrative is based on multiple accounts of avatar harassment in social VR applications, reported by women over the past few years. These two stories show VR’s ability to immerse users in experiences that are incredibly visceral and create strong positive connections, and its ability to also heighten unwelcome interactions. Unlike mobile app experiences, VR introduces new elements that you embody, and a spatial environment that fully immerses you with interactions that can feel real. We noticed there was an opportunity to create more inclusive AR/VR experiences so everyone can have the opportunity to create those strong positive connections, without fear of being harassed or dealing with unwelcome interactions.
New rules for new worlds
We knew that it was important to look at the problem of VR harassment from our unique perspective as female-identifying designers, so we set out to create a blueprint for how to design for inclusive social interactions and connections. We wanted to understand how body sovereignty and consent ideology might help practitioners design safer virtual social places from the ground up.
We’re excited to share this foundational thinking that became helpful in the early process of designing VR apps. You can see some of this thinking in one VR app, Facebook Horizon, and in its comfort and safety features in particular. Here we’ll frame some of our key learnings on how designers might make VR spaces more inclusive.
1. The body’s role: always consider identity
The impact of virtual harassment is that VR interactions can feel incredibly real. This sensation of experiencing a virtual body as your own is called virtual embodiment. For example, VR researcher Mel Slater found that when a rubber hand (or in this case a virtual rubber hand) is put in front of a person, they tend to process potential threats to the fake hand as real.
Feeling safe is a basic human need in any place. And since virtual social places have many of the hallmarks of real-world social places, we need to design safety into our virtual experiences.
Researcher Jackson Katz asked men and women what they do on a daily basis to avoid being sexually assaulted. For women, the list starts with, “Hold my keys as a potential weapon, check the back seat before I get in the car, don’t drink too much, don’t leave my drink unattended, carry mace, don’t have a listed number […]” and continues seemingly indefinitely. While for men, this isn’t something they think about; their standard answer was, “Nothing.” Considering people’s identities means acknowledging that different people come to spaces assuming varying levels of threat from others.
We started to tackle the problem by looking at consent language. “All people should have complete ownership of their bodies and any interactions that should occur to them,” says Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti in “Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape” (Berkeley: Seal Press). We built on this concept by looking at body sovereignty and ownership as a principle that might ensure safe, inclusive virtual social places and help maintain healthy virtual embodiment.
2. Body ownership: give people agency to navigate new places
The most crucial part of designing safer virtual social places is to understand how people perceive appropriate behaviors in the real world. In our day-to-day lives, you don’t skip the line or cut somebody off in traffic. VR has very similar social norms to what we have in our everyday lives. But, because VR is still fairly new, how those norms look or feel may not be thoroughly established.
Once we established some principles, the question became: how can we bring these structures of consent, body sovereignty, and respect into brand new virtual places like Horizon? Our theory was that we could develop this landscape by looking at how people give consent
(with consent-acquisition paradigms) in the real world and propose virtual equivalents to those interactions.
To build VR etiquette, we pursued a space-based framework. We looked at the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who explored human behavior in different spaces. He divides experiences into measurements of distance from the body:
In the real world, each zone has a proximity and an established code of conduct that offers explicit rules for what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. We can use these zones to highlight universal safety and enable people to report misbehavior in VR.
Using Hall’s zones as a spatial scale, we can provide guidance on which experiences and controls to include for each. Starting from the inner circle of intimacy, we look at consent acquisition models unique to each zone and provide safety-centric VR-equivalents.
As we look into each zone, we accompany our inclusive design suggestions with usage examples from our latest social VR apps. We built these qualities into the fabric of apps like Horizon, to provide our users with features that enable them to feel in control of their experience and surroundings.
Hall’s zone of interpersonal space: intimate
Spatial scale: 0 to 18 inches
It’s important that people can customize and control the types of experiences they’re willing to have with other people in these close quarters before they happen. To craft safety into virtual interactions, we suggest designers build granular controls that are easy to access and surfaced before close interactions begin. The inspiration for this comes from “Yes, No, Maybe” charts.
Our thinking on close-quarter interactions helped us see an opportunity to allow people to define their ideal experience up front and feel in control of their immediate virtual body. This concept appears in Horizon during onboarding, where we give people the agency to customize important settings like their appearance and microphone before entering their first social interaction. Core settings, like microphone control, are crucial to a user’s perception of safety and privacy — a user must know that they’re in control of their expression (and not at risk of a hot mic situation) to feel comfortable in their virtual skin.
Hall’s zone of interpersonal space: personal
Spatial scale: 1.5 to 4 feet
To build safety into virtual personal spaces, we looked at how medical practices negotiate consent through nonverbal cues. We took our inspiration from the way the National Institute of Health secures ongoing consent from deaf participants in clinical trials using universal gestures. Based on this approach, designers should incorporate simple communication gestures and shortcuts to allow their users to quickly report a problematic experience without interrupting or further degrading their experience.
Inspired by our solutions for personal spaces, we saw an opportunity for people to have a simple gesture they can rely on to feel safe and in control of their surroundings at all times. This concept appears in Horizon and in another VR app called Venues as the shortcut “Safe Zone.” Designed to be used during moments when people need quick-action remediation in tough situations, Safe Zone is a one-touch button to quickly remove you from a social virtual place. You simply touch the wearable button and you land in a place where you can mute, block, or report people and content around you — or just take a break.
When we designed our safety system, it was important when you block or mute someone at some point in your Horizon or Venues experience, that you are able to do so in other parts of the experience. This is key to a consistent system that people are able to trust.
3. Etiquette: set expectations for acceptable behaviors
According to Hall’s framework, real-world social spaces have familiarity and scale comparable to a college campus — these are almost-public spaces, with specific communities or purposes. To make virtual social places safer, we can refer to how people behave in similar, real-world environments. For inspiration, we looked at rules created by colleges to prevent on-campus assault. Specifically, we researched 1991 Antioch College landmark sexual assault policy and how other campuses have enforced these rules to help mitigate on-campus assaults. Designers can introduce local behavior expectations in VR social places by creating codes of conduct customized to the activities of the place and weaving them into the fabric of how the place is designed.
Hall’s zone of interpersonal space: social
Spatial scale: 4 to 12 feet
We set expectations by asking everyone in Horizon and Venues to follow the Conduct in VR Policy, backed by Facebook’s Community Standards. To reinforce these expectations and remind people of our community values, we display friendly signage in social areas and loading screens. This enables our first-party spaces to set the tone for a community that inspires respectful behavior and meaningful connections.
Hall’s zone of interpersonal space: public
Spatial scale: 12 feet and beyond
A great example of a public space is a public park or a city; any place in which you might run into others in the community. To ensure inclusivity in public virtual spaces, we look to real-world laws for inspiration, specifically definitions of consent, and criminal consequences. We should consider universal rules and behavioral expectations for virtual violation and harassment.
Beyond the zones
As VR creators, we hold the unique opportunity to imagine worlds unbound by reality’s constraints. When approaching the responsibility of constructing new social environments — regardless of how surreal they may be — we should remind ourselves to treat virtual embodiment with the same respect given to physical bodies. It is our responsibility to design safer virtual spaces and interactions, laying the groundwork for a future of more inclusive, secure and empowering VR communities.
And finally, when applying this methodology of virtual body sovereignty, remember that this is a singular framework, and not an end-all solution. As social VR matures, more opportunities will arise to translate real-world ethics into virtual ethics. We should be actively and continuously looking to real-world interaction frameworks and appropriating relevant ethical structures into our VR creations. A safe future is in our virtual hands.
This article is based on our experience authoring “Designing Safe Spaces for Virtual Reality” — a Facebook Research publication and chapter in the published anthology, “Ethics in Design and Communication: New Critical Perspectives” (Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London) — and the Facebook Horizon and Oculus Venues comfort and safety features it helped inspire.
Morrison, Julia Frances (2017), “Pedagogies of Consent: What Consent teaches us about Contemporary American Sexual Politics,” Honors Theses — All. 1736.
Friedman, Jaclyn, and Jessica Valenti, eds (2008), “Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape,” Berkeley: Seal Press.
See this article and others like it at the new Facebook Design website.