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VRDC17 & Other Adventures in Socialization!

Last week the OffWorld team was at the 2017 Virtual Reality Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.  We had a great time testing out some new products and got a lot of great insights from the speaker sessions!

Our Onsite Emissary enjoying a Fallout 4 demo

One topic we were especially grateful to get the opportunity to learn more about was abuse in social VR environments.  It’s an issue that got substantial attention at the conference this year, and for good reason.  While social VR may be relatively new, it’s no exception to the unfortunate reality that in all things, we have to take the good with the bad.  At least for now, until we build our way out of it.

New and uncharted territory like ours comes with no social instruction manual and as exciting as it is to be pioneers on this new digital frontier, we also have to be aware that some will arrive with less than stellar intentions.  It’s crucial that we all work to understand and solve for as many risks as possible because users who don’t feel safe in VR won’t be able to fall in love with it, and with the all the digital greatness to be shared through this awesome medium, that would be a real shame.  All of us in the VR development community need to work together and do our best to protect this limitless world of possibility from would-be trolls.  As Cy Wise of Owlchemy Labs put it, “The industry as a whole is harmed by putting out a half-supported social experience.”

Cy Wise (@cyceratops) of Owlchemy Labs at VRDC17

It’s critical that everyone engaged in social VR development is giving careful consideration to ensuring that their users have the ability to both prevent abuse and respond to it once it’s occurred.  In terms of responding after the fact, Cy pointed out that the Stop Gesture available in Rec Room is one of the more effective solutions currently in use.  Anyone experiencing abuse in the Rec Room environment has the option to hold their hand up in front of their harasser, and if they hold that position for a few seconds, the harassing user will become invisible.  It’s a well-designed response that’s effective in halting abuse, and it gives the user being abused a sense of agency in putting a stop to it.

Cy also pointed out that abuse tends to be performative in nature, and so removing a bully’s audience is key to taking away their motivation to act out.  If abusers only become invisible to the users they’re bothering, they can continue to bother that user’s avatar without their knowledge.  While the user themselves might not be directly affected anymore, in that case, allowing bullies to retain access to any audience makes the entire social space you’ve built that much less friendly.

It’s also important to understand that unwanted touching of any user’s avatar is a form of abuse.  Even though a physical body isn’t being touched, when you’re in VR your avatar body occupies the same space that your mind perceives your actual body to be in, and so unwanted contact can still provoke genuine psychological discomfort.  Unfortunately, there does still seem to be some debate about whether or not this type of virtual unwanted contact should be given credence as a true form of abuse, but for female users, in particular, this kind of interaction can provoke such a negative connotation with VR that they lose all interest in trying it again in the future.  For users, that means there’ll be less awesome people to meet in social VR spaces, and for developers, it means far fewer potential customers.

The OffWorld team at VRDC17

Another fantastic session was Suzanne Leibrick’s “Road to Art3mis: Women’s First-Time Experiences in Social VR,” which included a ton of great information from a study of first-time female VR users conducted by The Extended Mind.  We highly recommend clicking through to sign up for their mailing list and reading their reports in detail, because they’re overflowing with intriguing insights.  One point we found particularly interesting was that even in social applications, research suggests that privacy is the most effective default.  For female users especially, feeling like you’re in control is critical to enjoyment of the VR experience, and so letting users start out by exploring the environment solo and perhaps even using a generic, genderless avatar at first, allows them to figure out each new space in their own time and on their own terms.  When users feel safe and confident, they’re much more likely to love the space and want to keep coming back to it again and again.

Empowerment is definitely something that the OffWorld team is determined to build on our experiences, and so we’re very grateful to all of the industry leaders who shared their time and expertise with us as VRDC this year.  We can’t wait to put all this great new info to use in what we’re creating!

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