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Touch adds intimacy to VR experiences — but how do we make it safe for everyone?
I was in the living room of my childhood home, watching my mother as she stared out of the window, reeling from the news of her diagnosis. I could feel the carpet soft under my toes, and hear music in the background. “I wanted to save you from all the suffering,” Mom said as she turned and then embraced me with one of her never-let-you-go hugs before I said goodbye.
And then it all vanished, because this was just a virtual reality (VR) experience — one nothing like anything I’d experienced before. Draw Me Close is a VR-meets-theater performance that takes the audience on a journey through the memories of its creator, playwright Jordan Tannahill. The experience centers around interactions with his own mother, played by a flesh-and-blood actor who was in the virtual space with me.
Penny Layden (mother) in “Draw Me Close” with an audience member.
The use of touch throughout the performance has a huge impact; my virtual mother and I drew pictures together, held hands, and she even tucked me into bed. Before the performance began, I was reassured that there would be “light touch” and was asked for my consent. It added intimacy and emotional power to Jordan’s story, certainly; consensual touch, research has found, can help to build trust and connection, encourage empathy, and minimize stress.
But when touch occurs without consent it can be uncomfortable, unsettling, and form the basis of harassment and assault. And in the new world of virtual reality, this raises an important question: How do we ensure that virtual touch doesn’t violate people in VR spaces?
Understanding virtual embodiment — the phenomenon of believing that we are physically embodying another object or virtual avatar — is critical to the creation of VR experiences. In an influential 1998 study known as the “rubber hand illusion,” participants viewed a rubber hand being stroked while their own hand was stroked out of sight at the same time; every participant began to regard the rubber hand as part of their own body. The concept was revisited in 2010 study with a virtual arm where, again, participants readily took ownership of a virtual hand when the sensory information was in balance.
The discovery that people can feel as psychologically connected to a virtual body as their physical one adds to the responsibility of VR developers to prioritize the safety of their players. This is especially true of social spaces, such as AltspaceVR, Rec Room, High Fidelity, VTime, and Facebook Spaces, which all involve real people interacting in shared virtual environments.
In 2016, journalist Jordan Belamire wrote about her experience of playing QuiVR on the HTC Vive, in which another user persistently followed and groped her VR avatar. Belamire acknowledged that even though it was technically nonphysical, the harassment was “still scary as hell.” More than 49% of women and 36% of men have experienced some form of harassment in virtual environments, VR consultant and researcher Jessica Outlaw found in a 2018 study, with many players reporting groping, catcalls, and sexual harassment.
Touch is also an issue at real-world VR events, says Samantha Kingston, CEO of the marketing consultancy Virtual Umbrella and VR veteran. “You can never be too careful. To put a headset on someone or put your hands on someone’s shoulders — it can be easy to forget people can feel quite vulnerable. I ask permission and tell them exactly what I’m doing.”
Some more intensive VR experiences can involve much more physical touch, and also have multiple participants moving throughout the space at once. VR attractions The Void and Nomadic are focused on gaming and involve teams completing missions, shooting enemies, and exploring new spaces. These experiences operate like a theme park rides, requiring players to sign waivers and read a list of restrictions, but can be challenging for events designers to balance a seamless and absorbing narrative with the logistical challenges of waivers and consent.
“We have the technical challenge of making sure when people are being touched through digital networks, the person on the other end is who they say are.”
The complexity of touch in virtual worlds will only intensify with the development of haptic clothing, which uses vibration and sensors to replicate a sense of touch. If you’re wearing a haptic glove and someone holds your hand in a social VR space, it really feels like someone’s holding your hand. “This could increase the affective bonds we feel to remote users,” David Parisi, associate professor of emerging media at the College of Charleston and author of the book Archaeologies of Touch, tells OneZero. “Even if the reproduction of touch falls short of fully synthesizing the full range of tactile sensations, even low-definition can be emotionally meaningful.”
Yet as the sensitivity and intimacy of touch sensations becomes more sophisticated, so does the potential for abuse. “If implemented unsuccessfully, these haptic devices can be distracting, obtrusive, and uncomfortable,” says Parisi. “And we have the technical challenge of making sure digital touch technologies are secure, so when people are being touched through digital networks, the person on the other end is who they say are.”
Aware of concerns, many social VR spaces are now starting to deploy some of the tools used on social platforms including muting, blocking, reporting, and changing privacy settings. But they need to go further, says VR researcher and community builder Eva Hoerth. “The key to a good social VR experience is making a visitor feel safe, welcome, and empowered from the moment they step inside,” she told OneZero. “This should happen before they step into a space with other people.”
Virtual hosts could also prepare users for how “real” virtual touch will feel. “One of my favorite ideas for communicating touch was to have a group of virtual butterflies fly close to the visitor and land on their hand,” Hoerth says. “This is a delightful way to understand that what touches you in VR can feel real.”
Several social and multiplayer VR spaces have offered a space bubble that creates a close barrier around your avatar to stop others getting too close. In environments where people want to get closer to other players, VR spaces simply need to do a better job of educating people about touch and consent. After hearing that male players had witnessed harassment, Outlaw developed bystander intervention training which she has since delivered in social VR meeting spaces High Fidelity and AltSpaceVR. She advised men about techniques to respond to such situations, including distracting the victim, reporting and documenting the event themselves, or confronting the harasser.
One solution could be labels indicating which areas of the participant’s body would be touched — though that doesn’t, of course, account for interpersonal consent.
Hoerth suggests that developers explore visual indicators so that players could signal green if they are open to touch, yellow if they want to instigate touch, and red for no contact. “Because we don’t have the luxury of eye contact and accurate body language in VR yet, we as creators need to play around with how we can enable visitors to communicate their feelings,” she says.
Parisi advises simply that the best practice of consent in the real world should be applied to developing VR spaces. “We should never assume consent — we should always ask before we touch,” he says. One solution borrowed from the real world could be standardized advice labels indicating which areas of the participant’s body would be touched and with what intensity — though that doesn’t, of course, account for interpersonal consent. “Some experiences have warning screens that help to indicate to the user what they should expect,” says Sarah Jones, head of the Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University in the U.K. “These include simple instructions, which seem self-evident, but this is a new medium that needs explanation.”
If VR is going to find a lasting home with mainstream audiences, creators have to make their VR spaces safe for users. “Harassment, whether in a virtual world or a nonvirtual world, is still harassment, but there are few measures to currently protect against this,” says Jones. “Regulation around consent and touch is necessary and needed, but for now there is a duty of care on creators to provide this.”