Exclusive: eSafety has expressed concern over the potential for virtual rapes and sexual assaults as the advancement of immersive technologies makes virtual reality harder to distinguish from real-life experiences.
The rapid advancement of immersive technology has sparked grave concerns about the potential for virtual rapes, image-based abuse and physical and sexual assaults.
Australia’s eSafety Commission has warned new harms may emerge from hyper-realistic technology such as VR headsets and haptic suits – a wearable device which produces vibrations and engages a user’s sense of touch.
“While eSafety has not – as yet – received any reports of mishaps with haptics, or other misuses of these technologies, we anticipate that as they become more widely used these immersive technologies will give rise to a range of online safety issues,” says eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman-Grant.
In 2016, gamer Jordan Belamire wrote about experiencing a virtual sexual assault while playing the fantasy game QuiVR.
Ms Belamire had been playing with her husband and brother-in-law in multi-player mode when she was groped by another gamer.
“The virtual groping feels just as real,” she wrote at the time.
“Of course, you’re not physically being touched, just like you’re not actually one hundred feet off the ground, but it’s still scary as hell.”
Australian laws don’t really cover virtual rapes and sexual assaults, experts say.
Following the assault, developers of QuiVR, updated the game’s code to include an expanded “personal bubble” that they believe will prevent future gropings.
It followed mass uproar over a virtual rape in the 1990s on the text-based multi-user game LambdaMOO, after someone hijacked the system and played out various forms of sexual assault using people’s avatars.
Professor Kieran Tranter from QUT School of Law says the haptic suit example is “really at the extreme outside end of what our law imagines.”
“You are attaching something that has the potential to engage with your body in a sexual way, so there will be issues about consent around that,” Professor Tranter told The Feed.
“If there is unwanted sexual conduct, could we even identify the perpetrator and if we can’t, could we argue that the platform or even the hardware manufacturer is precariously liable for the assault?”
Professor Tranter says it would be difficult without substantial reforms to achieve a prosecution for sexual assault.
However, he says outside the area of sexual assault, there could be some options for victims to pursue under the Commonwealth Crimes Act regarding conduct on cyberspace.
What are immersive technologies?
eSafety predicts the use of immersive technologies will increase throughout the next decade and may soon be almost indistinguishable from actual experiences.
According to eSafety, immersive technology is a wide-ranging term that covers virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, a blend of AR and VR, and haptic technologies.
Together, these form a new universe of “extended reality” — and according to eSafety, smell and taste sensations will soon be added to the mix.
Haptic technology company HoloSuit provides full-body gaming experiences through wearables.
On its website, it claims, the user will be able to experience a “completely new level of immersion and free body movement.”
HoloSuit says this will allow gamers to do things like “throw the gun on the ground and surrender with their hands raised to see if enemy players will show mercy”.
As well as gaming, immersive technologies are also being integrated into the sex industry. Sex Like Real is one of the largest VR porn companies, recording over half a million monthly users in 2018.
In 2020, it launched a new interactive experience that uses multi-camera videos and allows users to interact through synchronised teledildonics – haptic devices designed to stimulate sexual excitement.
eSafety says it acknowledges there are positive outcomes that relate to the use of teledildonics, which it says can improve intimacy for people with disabilities or who are in long-distance relationships.
So what other potential harms are there?
There is concern that immersive technologies could ramp up image-based abuse and lead to increased sharing and streaming of non-consensual images and videos.
eSafety cautions augmented realities could be used to fake a sexually explicit three-dimensional image or video of a real person and interact with it, without their consent.
It says there is also a risk of non-consensual sexual activity if haptic sexual devices are hacked or controlled by someone without approval.
In 2017, Canadian sex toy maker We-Vibe was made to pay a settlement of $5.3 million to customers for collecting user-sensitive user data. This information included when they were used and vibration settings, linking it all to users’ email addresses.
eSafety believes location and biometric information, such as fingerprints, which are collected by AR and VR technologies, could also pose risks such as identity theft, stalking and extortion.
‘The potential for grooming’
eSafety has also raised significant concerns about the use of immersive technologies as a tool for online child sexual abuse.
One of the main risks, it says, is that predators may hide behind an avatar or a fictional character to groom children and persuade them into sexualised conversations and actions.
The eSafety Commission says if you receive threats or abuse in an immersive environment, you should report the incident to the platform and collect evidence, such as screenshots – unless the person involved is under 18 years of age.
Ms Inman-Grant says it’s important to supervise children when they’re online and make them feel comfortable to ask for help.
“In practical advice – when parents and carers are deciding if their child should play an immersive technology game, they should think about whether it’s something they would want their child to experience in real life,” she says.
Professor Tranter says it’s important to keep talking about these technologies as they continue to advance.
“This is a really important discussion,” he says.
“Up until now, a lot of our discussion around digital media has always been ‘well, if you don’t want to experience those things don’t use it.’”
“And increasingly, we’re in a position where that’s not a reality and I suspect we’re going to be facing these issues more and more”