Meta’s internal review of the incident found that the beta tester should have used a tool called “Safe Zone” that’s part of a suite of safety features built into Horizon Worlds. Safe Zone is a protective bubble users can activate when feeling threatened. Within it, no one can touch them, talk to them, or interact in any way until they signal that they would like the Safe Zone lifted.
Vivek Sharma, the vice president of Horizon, called the groping incident “absolutely unfortunate,” telling The Verge, “That’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable.”
It’s not the first time a user has been groped in VR—nor, unfortunately, will it be the last. But the incident shows that until companies work out how to protect participants, the metaverse can never be a safe place.
“There I was, being virtually groped”
When Aaron Stanton heard about the incident at Meta, he was transported to October 2016. That was when a gamer, Jordan Belamire, penned an open letter on Medium describing being groped in Quivr, a game Stanton co-designed in which players, equipped with bow and arrows, shoot zombies.
In the letter, Belamire described entering a multiplayer mode, where all characters were exactly the same save for their voices. “In between a wave of zombies and demons to shoot down, I was hanging out next to BigBro442, waiting for our next attack. Suddenly, BigBro442’s disembodied helmet faced me dead-on. His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest. ‘Stop!’ I cried … This goaded him on, and even when I turned away from him, he chased me around, making grabbing and pinching motions near my chest. Emboldened, he even shoved his hand toward my virtual crotch and began rubbing.
“There I was, being virtually groped in a snowy fortress with my brother-in-law and husband watching.”
Stanton and his cofounder, Jonathan Schenker, immediately responded with an apology and an in-game fix. Avatars would be able to stretch their arms into a V gesture, which would automatically push any offenders away.
Stanton, who today leads the VR Institute for Health and Exercise, says Quivr didn’t track data about that feature, “nor do I think it was used much.” But Stanton thinks about Belamire often and wonders if he could have done more in 2016 to prevent the incident that occurred in Horizon Worlds a few weeks ago. “There’s so much more to be done here,” he says. “No one should ever have to flee from a VR experience to escape feeling powerless.”