A sinister journey to the VIRTUAL SIDE
Facebook’s virtual-reality world is for over-13s but harassment, racism, talk of porn and worse make it scary even for adults. Louise Eccles takes a wander through the metaverse.
‘‘What’s your two favourite categories of pornography?’’ a stranger with heavy stubble and a Yorkshire accent asked as he sidled up to me.
The man was hiding behind an avatar – a floating, legless 3D animation of himself – but his voice was real. I was sitting at my desk at home with a virtual reality (VR) headset on, completely safe, but the conversation was jarring and when I walked away, he followed.
I was in the metaverse, a virtual reality world typically accessed via a headset and in which people can socialise alongside other avatars as if they were in the same room.
I had borrowed an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset from Meta, formerly Facebook, with the intention of making a video guide to the metaverse for The Sunday Times, but I discovered a darker side of this alternative reality.
I encountered the Yorkshireman with the interest in pornography on a virtual snow-covered mountain. I blocked him, but the other conversations in this makebelieve setting for 13-year-olds and over were even worse.
A green-faced avatar with a male voice approached another avatar and began simulating sex with it while using explicit language. Others were speculating over who in the group was masturbating at home.
Through their microphones I could hear accents from all over the world, American, Indian, English, Australian, using racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic language. One avatar bragged that it was good there were no ‘‘admins’’ – moderators – listening to the conversation at the time. Nearby an Australian woman with pink hair was berating an avatar in feminine clothing and with a deep voice for refusing to declare whether they identified as male or female.
Oculus headsets are supposed to be for those who are at least 13 years of age, but I encountered children as young as 7 talking to men in VR social spaces using their real voices and hearing racist language being used.
Initially, my experience with the Oculus had gone well. I wore the heavy white goggles and used two hand controllers to create an avatar, navigate my way to virtual work meetings, and try an exercise class set in the streets of Paris. The headset enabled me to feel the thrill of carving down mountains on a snowboard and the adrenaline rush of climbing a mountain without ropes.
Yet switching to the social apps, on which you mingle with strangers who are also using VR headsets, it was at times predatory and vile.
AltspaceVR is owned by Microsoft and is a popular social platform on the Oculus. I had created an avatar that roughly resembled an idealised version of myself – a brunette with green eyes and fair skin – and chose a blue dress and quilted burgundy gilet for my first event socialising in the app. I entered a virtual ‘‘winter campfire’’, a snowy landscape where strangers can congregate to speak to one another. Within seconds, I was approached by a male avatar with a bushy beard and thick-rimmed yellow glasses. ‘‘Oh, you are too pretty. Are you married?’’ he asked. Another man with a purple face told me he liked my hair and reached out to touch me. I shuffled off using the joystick touch hand controller but was then approached by the Yorkshireman, whom I had already heard exchanging sexually explicit and violent insults with another man and who had joked about killing his own mother.
It was an open event for anyone 13 and over and Microsoft says that, by using the service, anyone under 18 is affirming they have parental permission to be using the AltspaceVR platform.
Around me, several women seemed equally perplexed by what they were experiencing; a creepy and expletive-ridden form of speed dating. One woman advised me to block anyone who was offensive. A Frenchwoman, whose avatar featured a stylish blond bob and a grey blazer, told me she was only there to improve her English. Perhaps realising she would only learn the worst of the language, she quickly left.
Meta has launched several social spaces under the brand name Horizon, including Workrooms, a space for work meetings, and Venues, where you can attend shows and concerts and socialise with strangers.
I created a new avatar, this time with a green jumper and jeans, and entered the Venues reception area. It resembled the lobby of a cinema, and I was able to walk through different doors to watch live events, such as wrestling, or a show in a mock planetarium. I immediately saw several children mixing with adults. An American girl with purple hair and a conspicuously young voice told me she was 7 and using her sister’s headset. It was uncomfortable to watch adult men talking to her as she showed them how to take selfies of their avatars. Close by, a man was loudly repeating a racist word during a conversation.
At one point, the 7-year-old looked up and saw a group of mostly male avatars close by, listening in to a conversation she was having with a teenage boy. ‘‘Why are they all looking at us?’’ she asked.
Signs on pillars told users how to block, mute and report other avatars for inappropriate behaviour. The sheer volume of safety notices on this and other apps suggests tech companies know the metaverse has a problem.
It was not all sinister in virtual reality, however. I watched a 3D documentary about penguins in Antarctica, visited a virtual nightclub and tried out different roles in a job simulator. I danced and boxed and meditated in glorious settings.
I visited a virtual art gallery where I spoke to a female advertising executive who was researching VR for her job. She spoke of how strange it felt to watch another avatar walk straight through her one, like a ghost, and her hopes that this would soon be fixed.
It felt odd making small talk with floating torsos, but the experience was perfectly pleasant. It is how the metaverse could be, if only the right protections are put in place. –
’’It was not all sinister in virtual reality, however. I watched a 3D documentary about penguins in Antarctica, visited a virtual nightclub and tried out different roles in a job simulator.’’