EXTREMELY CLOSE AND INCREDIBLY LOUD
Untethered by the limitations of the physical world, virtual reality spans geographies, unites people across genders, cultures, and occupations, and doesn’t have to abide by the laws of physics.
From whimsical amusement to challenging discourse, VR offers a platform for all kinds of wrenching, feeling, marrow-sticking humanity: We can disc golf with our father on the other side of the continent. We can explore a maze with our girlfriend an ocean away and play Cards Against Humanity with new friends in different time zones. We can join a room of people from around the USA discussing education, the election, and other real, difficult topics that affect their everyday lives.
Along with its potential, virtual reality also poses brand new issues that need to be addressed in brand new ways. As droves of newcomers enter a frontier-like virtual world, so too will they encounter its social norms and community ideals.
At AltspaceVR, those ideals mean richer communication and radical inclusion. So, when a woman chronicled her experience of virtual harassment and more stories began to surface, a woman-led product and development team at AltspaceVR created, tested, and launched a Space Bubble feature to empower their users in virtual reality.
RECALIBRATING THE “REAL WORLD”
Especially with those new to the concept of VR, it’s not uncommon to encounter the question, “Can someone really be harassed in virtual reality?” Your body isn’t physically there — it’s merely an avatar created by data flowing from server to server, and your brain is just following along. VR, however, is so effective, so transportive, so visceral, that users run into actual walls when playing virtual reality games and psychologists use it to help patients overcome phobias.
In an experience as immersive as VR, the emotional effects of personal violations are as real as those walls and phobia cures. To accept the positive potential of VR is also to accept the negative — that potential for virtual harassment and personal attack.
Determined to provide safe environments that encourage richer communication, a team comprised primarily of women developed AltspaceVR’s Space Bubble, a feature designed to give every user greater ability to control their personal space. Spearheaded by then Head of Product, Debby Shepard, Director of Engineering Greg Fodor, Software Engineer Ting Ting Wu, Product Manager Mary Mossey, and Marketing Manager Katie Kelly, the AltspaceVR team acknowledged their opportunity to influence the kinds of behavior their product would support in the virtual world. At AltspaceVR, says Wu, “we want to facilitate the world to communicate in the most natural and fulfilling way possible.”
To do that, the team needed to give users a way to “feel safe…and to not be distracted by negative interactions,” she continued. “We wanted,” stated Kelly, “to transfer generally held concepts of comfort in real life to VR.”
BECOMING THE USER
In an industry dominated by men, designing new features often means designing for experiences many of those men have never encountered. Striving to create spaces that users from all groups could see themselves in, AltspaceVR founder and CEO, Eric Romo, championed from the company’s inception the importance of cultivating an organization that represented groups both inside and outside of the tech industry standard. Their focus on hiring team members who represent a range of experiences are ongoing and, as AltspaceVR sees it, never perfect, but they did contribute to the formation of the team who would spearhead Space Bubble’s development.
When women disproportionately bore the brunt of unsolicited, lewd behavior in virtual reality, the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives of AltspaceVR’s team members prepared them to discuss, explore, and create hyper-empathetic safety features that, they hoped, would feel right for their broad and diverse community of users. Wu, Mossey, and their colleagues embraced the opportunity to build tools that would empower minority groups in VR, like women and LGBTQ identified individuals — an opportunity made possible partly because those groups have representation on the team.
So did qualities like womanness, gender identification, and sexual preference play into the creation of AltspaceVR’s expanded features? Answering as a seasoned veteran in the tech space would, Mossey deftly replies, “Yes, and.”
Coupling their team’s personal experiences with the growing number of articles echoing similar issues, Wu, Mossey, and the AltspaceVR team established a go-forward plan for creating Space Bubble. “We wanted to create proactive tools that could be combined with reactive measures,” said Mossey, “but first we had to make a logical assessment. What kind of behaviors should we mitigate? What could we make to deal with those behaviors? We chose a subset that allowed our users [and our team] to have discussions about real, concrete features we could implement.” Added Wu, “[We] had to figure out how to make multiple groups happy…I knew that [everyone, not just women] in our company would provide an important voice. These features had to make sense for all sorts of users.”
Understanding that ‘all sorts of users’ truly means a community made up of people of varying ages, ethnicities, customs, cultures, gender identities, and sexual preferences, the AltspaceVR team determined thresholds and default settings through trial, error, and feedback sessions. “The challenge,” Shepard explains, “is how to enable connection without enabling harassment.”
It was vital, the team decided, to allow individual users to choose the level of comfort that was right for them. “The features,” says Shepard, “are really about empowering people to have control over their experience.”
SPACE BUBBLE: EMPOWERING USERS TO ESTABLISH THEIR OWN BOUNDARIES
“In the [physical] world, we have tools to express levels of discomfort, like facial expressions and body language, but in VR you’re physically limited.” Wu continues, “In VR you might not be able to push someone back, but we can build tools that give you a different set of options to control your space.”
To complement AltspaceVR’s already existing suite of safety features, Wu and Mossey set out to build and refine Space Bubble to give users more control over their personal space.
Activated by default but ultimately controlled by the user, Space Bubble renders an avatar invisible once they reach a certain proximity to a user who has their Space Bubble turned on. The encroaching avatar is also made invisible to the rest of the users in the space to prevent harassment that a targeted user can’t see. Nuanced, complex, and evolving, the team iterated on Space Bubble to determine the right balance between personal comfort levels and social and cultural norms. Their goal was to create a functional, effective solution that worked for a wide range of social and cultural preferences but that required no configuration — a bubble small enough to allow actions like high-fiving but large enough to eliminate invasive behaviors, like groping.
Describing the team’s approach to creating these tools Mossey explained, “We picked behaviors that arguably few people could say were bad (like high-fiving and dancing at a concert) as well as examples that were unlikely to be perceived as positive…no one seems to like it when people reach for their face. From there, we established benchmarks of spatial proximity and tested those on ourselves and in our community. We asked users what felt OK, and what didn’t. We wanted,” Mossey continued, “to create tools that helped prevent [harassment] from happening in the first place.”
Developing AltspaceVR’s suite of tools was not easy, and Wu and Mossey know the job isn’t done. “It’s a complicated process with edge cases and subtleties, and the details matter a lot,” explained Mossey. Discussing the intricacies of the tools the team developed, Director of Engineering, Greg Fodor, agreed: “Building a Block feature and engineering the Space Bubble requires instrumenting the entire architecture of data flow.” Through their work, says Fodor, the team at AltspaceVR built a “more nuanced, more foundational, more complex, fundamental safety net.”
It’s a safety net that allows every user, and especially those targeted most often, to actively participate in constructing the environment of their choosing. “I think it’s incredibly important for women-identified people especially,” Kelly observed, because “determining their environment is something they can’t necessarily do in the real world today. With VR, we have the chance to give women and other targeted groups the tools to proactively create their experience, rather than adapt to one that is volatile to them.”
Happy with the first iteration of what they launched, Wu says, “Our goal was to empower each and every user. We did that, and I’m excited about what we built.” She added, “It’s a good sign that the number of stories about bad experiences in AltspaceVR have declined since our tools launched, but I definitely anticipate more work as virtual technology progresses.”
KEEPING PACE WITH PROGRESS
Augmenting the functionality of Space Bubble, AltspaceVR offers a suite of safety features that allow users to construct the environment they prefer. Inspired by longtime standards in the gaming world, collaborative team efforts resulted in the implementation of individual audio and visual controls for every user. If a user prefers not to hear or interact with another avatar, they have the option to eliminate that user’s voice or entire avatar from their experience, by muting or blocking them.
AltspaceVR’s efforts also focused on making it easier for users to connect and interact with whom they choose. In collaboration with colleagues like Tony Sheng, Wu and Mossey supported ‘Friending’ and ‘Hosting’ functionality in AltspaceVR, enabling users to recognize with whom they’re sharing space and to control who enters a space in which they’re hosting an activity.
User and Event Operations Manager, Nate Barsetti, explains, “The final piece was figuring out how to remove ourselves from group management entirely. Part of that was giving event management control to the users so they can organize activities and make their own decisions for who participates.”
AltspaceVR also offers 24/7 access to an AltspaceVR Concierge. Believing in the transformative power of connection, the company emphasizes the importance of having real, live people available on their platform so users can ask questions or get help with issues that break Community Standards. When reflecting on the intricacies of developing tools that can benefit an expanding, evolving user base Wu states, “It’s amazing, [the complexity of] humanity doesn’t go away no matter what plane you’re in.”
Virtual reality developers are now faced with the choice and challenge of protecting that humanity within their platforms. Stepping respectfully into the world of barriers, boundaries, and rules, Wu, Mossey, and their team were careful not to dictate features like Space Bubble’s enforcement, but to educate users about their application and give them the power to activate or deactivate them as desired.
“We don’t want to deter people from being who they authentically are,” Kelly explains, “we just want to give each user an equal opportunity to feel welcome in AltspaceVR.”
Users can opt to host private activities and events free of direct moderation by AltspaceVR, but in the spaces supported and promoted by AltspaceVR, the team takes a stand, “We operate under the belief that if something is not acceptable in reality, that’s a good indicator it might not be acceptable in virtual reality. At least that’s the default, and it’s a strong grounding principle here,” says Fodor.
21st CENTURY CHALLENGES
Like parks or public plazas, virtual reality spaces necessitate discussions about the rights of their users and the ethics, etiquette, and grounding principles which govern users’ behavior within them.
Beyond those of immediate safety, Kelly posits that those rights should include the opportunity “to craft a world that supports [their] identity” and allows individuals to wholly participate in the world in which they exist. Keeping virtual reality safe and welcoming “won’t just be one thing,” says Shepard, “but a number of solutions that include technical solutions from companies like ours as well as solutions from society and the community of people in virtual reality.” It’s predicated on “a growth, a mentality, an evolution, a shift.”
“What’s really hard,” Mossey states, “is that we’re trying to solve a problem that society has not yet figured out how to solve.”
Without the threat of physical harm and with features that promote safety, perhaps virtual reality could serve as a test space for finding those solutions. Perhaps it could be used to build empathy and trust among diverse groups of people. And perhaps, over time, it could compel us to let down our barriers both in virtual space and in the physical world. As Mossey observes, “virtual reality is one of the areas where technology provides us the privilege to do better than real life.”
If virtual reality can help us build a society in which everyone feels safe to be themselves, then Wu, Mossey, and the team at AltspaceVR want to continue building features that will help create it. Asks Kelly, “If we have the opportunity to build a better world, why wouldn’t we?”
And she invites you to join.