The metaverse promises almost untold excitement, touted as the last frontier, using VR headsets to travel through a virtual universe.
But amid the excitement, experts warn vulnerable groups face an even higher threat. The immersive, all-consuming nature of virtual reality carries more danger than other digital forms, and their safety may be at risk.
Nina Jane Patel is a psychotherapist who conducts research on the metaverse.
She has first-hand experience of sexual violence in the virtual environment. The 43-year-old mother-of-four recently revealed her “surreal nightmare” of being “gang raped” in virtual reality.
“You are literally stepping into a 360-degree digital environment,” Patel told The Independent.
“Virtual reality has been designed to be as real as possible. it is similar to inviting someone into your living room. The violation feels more acute than it would feel on a social media platform.”
Patel wrote in a Medium post how she was harassed in a Facebook Horizon Venues metaverse.
“I was verbally and sexually harassed within 60 seconds of joining. Three or four male avatars virtually gang-raped my avatar and took photos. As I tried to get away they yelled: ‘Don’t pretend you didn’t love it,’ and ‘go rub yourself off to the photo’.”
How might risk escalate in the metaverse?
It all depends on how the space is governed. Social interaction digitally is relatively easy to avoid at present. If someone sends you a friend request or finds your number and messages you, you can easily block them.
But in the metaverse, an unwanted individual could impose on your virtual personal space. With developments in haptic gloves, it’s not fantasy to think harm could become physical.
Inevitably with technology, some bad actors will hijack it for profit.
Kavya Pearlman, CEO of the XR Security Initiative (XRSI), has provided proof-of-concept research that shows how an attacker could manipulate a VR platform to reset the physical boundaries of hardware, according to TechTarget.
For example, a user could be pushed into the path of furniture or down a flight of stairs.
This could become even more dangerous as augmented reality enters the picture, and users could potentially be misdirected into a street or led into a dangerous physical situation, such as a robbery or mugging.
Pearlman said that while working in VR, she would experience a feeling called “phantom timeline syndrome” where the lines between the virtual world and physical world became blurred.
“You are not able to distinguish reality from VR,” she recounted. “You step out of VR and you still feel like whatever is around you is VR.”
Is there cause for alarm?
Many countries are pushing for new laws and regulations. Some, like the UK, Canada, India, and Germany, have already outlawed image-based sexual abuse, where private pictures are shared without consent.
“Our society says we’re going to protect kids in the physical world, but we’ve yet to see that in the same way on the digital side,” said Steven J. Grocki, from the US Justice Department.
The key to bringing governance to the metaverse will be updating existing laws and adapting them to a digital context.
Organizations such as Access Now and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are calling for governments and other stakeholders to address human rights in the context of virtual and augmented reality.
A spokesman for Access Now said: “Our XR (extended reality) data should be used in our own interests, not to harm or manipulate us.
“The future is tomorrow, so let’s make it a future we would want to live in.”
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