Facebook's Metaverse gives avatars 'personal bubbles' to block virtual groping

Facebook is bringing personal space to the metaverse (Meta)

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has added a security measure to its home-grown virtual world to prevent harrassment.

Avatars in the metaverse app Horizon Worlds will now be protected by a ‘personal boundary’ function that blocks others from getting too close.

The personal bubble will turned on by default, but users will still be able to make small actions, like high-fives or fist bumps.

It is hoped the new measure will help curtail harassment following reports of virtual groping in the digital space.

‘A personal boundary prevents anyone from invading your avatar’s personal space,’ Horizon vice president Vivek Sharma wrote in a blog post introducing the new function on Friday.

‘If someone tries to enter your personal boundary, the system will halt their forward movement as they reach the boundary,’ Sharma added.

It comes after high profile reports of harrassment on the virtual platform, which Facebook hopes will eventually become the new form of internet.

‘Within 60 seconds of joining — I was verbally and sexually harassed — 3–4 male avatars, with male voices, essentially, but virtually gang raped my avatar and took photos,’ wrote Nina Jane Patel, who used the metaverse, on Medium.

Mrs Patel, 43, told The Mail on Sunday how she had entered the Horizons Venues metaverse ‘as an avatar who looked just like me – middle-aged, blonde and dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved top’.

Horizon already has an anti-harassment feature in place that makes an avatar’s hands vanish if it tries to inappropriately touch another virtual character.

The company also restricts entrance to over-18s, but as with other online platforms, it is simple enough for youngsters to lie about their age to gain access.

Also, while Meta is able to put these restictions in place for its own metaverse world, it will be up to other developers to implement similar tools in their own designs.

Meta opened its Horizon Worlds VR platform in North America in December, in a step toward building its metaverse vision for the future. The company has previously announced it will be creating up to 10,000 jobs in the EU to help build out the metaverse.

So, what exactly is the metaverse?

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In essence, it is the internet in 3D.

The metaverse is an online world in which people can meet, play and work virtually, often entering this world using virtual reality headsets.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has described it as being a place where rather than just viewing content ‘you are in it’ and as an early example has used the idea of people watching a concert video on their smartphone but then jumping in it using the metaverse to create the sense they are really there.

The metaverse would not be run by one company, Facebook says, but would instead be an open internet which different companies could build on and offer their own experiences to people.

Some of the virtual experiences already exist in some form, but they are all independent and not seamlessly linked together – that is the aim of the metaverse.

Facebook’s metaverse idea would see all the experience accessible in one place and at any point, with users able to enter it not just via VR headsets, but also PCs, games consoles and mobile devices in much the same way they do now with mobile internet.

But what could I actually do in it?

Anything – meet friends and chat around a fire, take a fitness class on top of a mountain, play the latest video game, watch a movie or take part in an experience such as deep-sea diving.

The idea is that you can jump in and have any real-life social experience in virtual reality, with holograms or avatars representing the user and their friends and colleagues.

And given the world’s reliance on video conferencing over the last 18 months, one key usage of the metaverse could be as a new type of virtual meeting space.

So instead of staring at a grid of faces all sat in their kitchens, imagine putting on a VR headset and finding yourself sat in a hilltop villa surrounded by avatars of colleagues and having the meeting ‘in-person’ no matter where everyone is based.

And not just for meetings – Facebook has even suggested that these spaces could become an ‘infinite office’ where people all feel like they are working in the same place, even when they could be in different cities or even countries.

Speaking to The Verge earlier this year, Zuckerberg also suggested meeting in the metaverse could replace some analogue phone calls or video calls.

‘In the future, instead of just doing this over a phone call, you’ll be able to sit as a hologram on my couch, or I’ll be able to sit as a hologram on your couch, and it’ll actually feel like we’re in the same place, even if we’re in different states or hundreds of miles apart,’ he said.

And this idea applies to any type of social situation, for example, gaming.

Lots of virtual reality gaming experiences already exist, and these could be woven into the metaverse so you could play any game on a virtual video wall in front of you, with your best friend sat next to you like they are at home with you cheering you on, or you could jump into a more immersive game and move around a haunted house hunting zombies together.

How long before I can use it?

There is a while to wait yet.

Facebook has insisted it is only at the ‘start of the journey’ to build the metaverse, and Zuckerberg has spoken about transforming the company into a metaverse-based one in five years.

While the first applications are available to use right now in some countries with a virtual reality headset, it will be a year or more before the metaverse is firmly established in the UK.

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