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This new group wants to keep harassment and hate out of VR and AR

As new forms of reality—virtual, augmented, and mixed—mature, it’s a good time to talk about keeping them safe.

This new group wants to keep harassment and hate out of VR and AR
[Source images: Sylverarts/iStock; Customdesigner/iStock]

A group of big tech companies who make virtual and augmented reality gear and software have assembled a trade group to promote safety in virtual spaces.

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The group, called the XR Association, counts Facebook’s Oculus, HTC, Microsoft, and others as members. (“XR” is an umbrella term that encapsulates virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality.)

XRA has already released an initial set of guidelines to help developers create XR devices that well-designed and easy to use, and it’s now added a new set of best practices for creating safe and inclusive virtual social spaces. The formation of XRA and the release of the guidelines represent the first time the industry has coalesced in an actual trade group to spread best practices and educate the public.

A lot can go wrong in virtual social spaces, and problems are well-documented. People have been harassed and virtually groped—in VR. To the victim, virtual harassment can feel as real, and as painful, as real-world harassment.

“While harassment and safety risks in VR can be similar to those expressed in 2D social spaces, VR users may experience abusive behavior in a more bodily or visceral fashion,” say XRA’s new guidelines on the subject, which seem more like common sense than revelations. “When building product tools, we should aim to create strong protection and reporting mechanisms, not diminish them, for a safer, more positive experience for everyone.”

In AR, where digital imagery is overlaid on the real world, it’s possible to spread graffiti that everybody else will see when they encounter that same real-world space. The new XRA guidelines give a cautionary example of a user stamping a silly emoji over a memorial in the real world. But other scenarios are more disturbing. Bullies could virtually graffiti a victim’s home. Racists could paint hate slogans over civil rights monuments.

The XRA’s guidelines provide ways of steering users away from that kind of bad behavior. “We’re saying please think about these things; think about the situations you’re putting the user in,” XRA CEO Liz Hyman told me. “Think about the behaviors that are not acceptable in the environment they’re using this technology in.”

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Hyman, an attorney, worked as a lobbyist for the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) trade group from 2010 until May of 2019, when she started with XRA. She’s still based in Washington, D.C. Since XRA is still very new, Hyman says she spends most of her time educating industry people, think tanks, and government agencies on XR and safety in virtual spaces.

But this focus could evolve in the future, she adds. “There’s the potential that we would encourage lawmakers to look at this content to make sure that industry is following these best practices,” Hyman said.  XRA is a global organization, so its outreach extends to tech companies, legislators, and others all over the world.

Safe for work

The XRA group shows up at a time with VR, AR, and mixed reality are still nascent technologies. VR still hasn’t become a mainstream consumer product, and with rare exceptions such as Pokémon Go, AR and MR are even further from mainstream adoption. Hyman believes the XRA guidelines might be immediately relevant to companies creating XR hardware and software for workplaces. In fact, one of the XR space’s best known, most hyped players, Magic Leap, recently announced a new suite of products for enterprise customers.

Large companies are using XR for a growing list of tasks. It started with training–using VR headsets to put the trainee in a virtual environment similar to the one they’ll be working in. But corporations are increasing using virtual spaces to allow far-flung employees to meet and collaborate without having to bare the high expense of flying them in for face-to-face meetings.

Many in the tech industry think that some form spatial computing–perhaps the AR glasses Apple and Facebook are working on–will eventually challenge the smartphone as our go-to computing device. If that proves out, safety will be a big issue.

“Our goal is to have that collective effort to get ahead of that,” Hyman said. “We want these environments to be safe, respectful, and inclusive.”

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