Sexual harassment being reported in Meta's Horizon Worlds days after launch

Meta's Horizon Worlds VR space
"I felt like a bit of a specimen," one user wrote. Photo credit: Meta / Horizon Worlds

Last week Meta opened up access to its Horizon Worlds virtual reality (VR) app for users in the US and Canada, letting up to 20 users share a virtual space together.

But by the time it was released, one user had already complained about inappropriate behaviour in the app from when she was part of the invite-only beta testing.

According to website The Verge the woman posted on the official Horizon group on Facebook earlier this month that she had been virtually groped by someone she didn't know.

"Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense," the post read. 

"Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behaviour which made me feel isolated in the Plaza."

Meta reviewed the incident and said the beta tester should have used 'Safe Zone', a tool that's part of a number of safety features built into the program.

It creates a bubble around an avatar that stops anyone from interacting with it in any way.

The vice president of Horizon, Vivek Sharma, called the incident "absolutely unfortunate", according to The Verge.

"That's good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable," he said.

Journalist and author Parmy Olson, writing for Bloomberg, is another who felt uncomfortable in the virtual world. 

When she logged in a small group of male avatars started to form around her, with several starting to take pictures of her.

"The experience was awkward and I felt like a bit of a specimen," she wrote.

She followed that up on Twitter saying: "I'd say a good 10 percent of encounters were creepy or unpleasant. So a tad worrying to imagine this scaling up to millions of users."

Just because the abuse happens in a virtual world doesn't lessen the impact, according to some researchers.

"People should keep in mind that sexual harassment has never had to be a physical thing," Jesse Fox, an associate professor at Ohio State University told the MIT Technology Review.

"It can be a virtual experience as well."

That was backed up by Katherine Cross, an online harassment researcher at the University of Washington.

She said that when virtual reality is so immersive it feels real, the toxic behaviour that occurs within it can also be real.

"The nature of virtual reality spaces is that it is designed to trick the user into thinking they are physically in a certain space, that their every bodily action is occurring in a 3D environment," she told the MIT Technology Review

"It's part of the reason why emotional reactions can be stronger in that space, and why VR triggers the same internal nervous system and psychological responses."

Meta spokesperson Kristina Milian said the goal of the company was to make Horizon Worlds safe for everyone and are committed to making it happen.

"We will continue to improve our UI and to better understand how people use our tools so that users are able to report things easily and reliably," she said.