Responsible development of VR technology will require input from marginalized communities.
By immersing users in a digitally-rendered environment, virtual reality can revolutionize how people work, learn, and interact.
The advent of virtual reality technology has brought major changes to the way we interact with each other. It creates new avenues for remote collaboration, promotes the accessibility of education and healthcare, and introduces novel ways for strangers to interact with one another.
It is clear that there are a lot of benefits that minorities such as the LGBTQ+ community can reap from adopting VR technology. But, like with any other interactive technology, there are many challenges that could prevent it from reaching its full potential as a force for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Risks to LGBTQ+ User Privacy
User privacy is critical for everyone. But for LGBTQ+ individuals, especially those who may not yet be out, the potential for the unauthorized use, sale, or leak of sensitive data can have serious ramifications.
When it comes to VR applications, the information collected can be much more intimate than through other online channels. For example, certain applications may require the processing of highly personal biometric data, such as your fingerprints, face geometry, and/or eye scans.
Virtual reality applications such as VRChat may need users to record real-time action and speech in order to use a majority of its features. In the event of a system breach, there is always a danger that individuals’ faces and surroundings may be collected and utilized for unauthorized purposes.
This type of personal information can be very invasive and should be considered highly sensitive data within data policies and guidelines. Furthermore, companies in the VR space are not restricted from using or selling your information as they see fit and consumers have to rely on an individual company’s privacy policies for information on how their data may be used.
For members of the LGBTQ+ community, having private data leaked to third-party collectors can be a terrifying ordeal. This can be especially concerning for individuals from countries where there are no protections to protect LGBTQ+ individuals from harassment or worse.
To be truly accessible, virtual reality systems and applications must maintain transparency on their user’s privacy rights and continue strengthening privacy and security measures to protect sensitive data from unauthorized use.
Virtual Reality Harassment and Abuse
Another risk that LGBTQ+ members can face is VR harassment and abuse – a common occurrence online. This can take the form of vitriolic and toxic comments about a person’s sexuality or gender, for example, often leaving victims suffering from trauma.
Harassment and abuse in virtual reality can be especially traumatic for younger and more susceptible members in the LGBTQ+ community, since it may rekindle unpleasant recollections of real-life bullying experiences. This can not only worsen their mental health, but it can also stifle the victim’s creativity and reduce self-esteem.
Even though harassment can happen anywhere both offline and online, it can feel more impactful in VR because a person can feel more like they are actually in close proximity with the assailant than in other online experiences.
According to a survey conducted by Jessica Outlaw, almost half of all female participants have experienced one instance of sexual harassment using virtual reality. In the same survey, about a third of men have experienced homophobic remarks. That amounts to over 200 people in a 600-person sample that have been subjected to homophobic and sexist abuse in virtual reality.
While minimizing harassment and abuse may pose a difficult obstacle for VR’s forward progress, there are already safety protocols and standards in place to diminish these behaviors and companies develop more sophisticated tools for detection and banning of abusers daily.
For example, some applications have the option to block users who you may deem to be violating your space. You may also enable a “force field” of sorts in virtual simulation games to prevent other players from invading your personal space.
However, with the anonymity of online applications and games, it still poses difficulties to control who enters the virtual space and how these people act while they’re there. While there have been efforts to discourage cyberbullying, it’s much too complex to weed it out entirely, in a VR space or otherwise.
Lack of Inclusivity
Another risk that LGBTQ+ members face with the virtual reality space is the potential for lack of inclusivity.
Many platforms and applications are overwhelmingly heterosexual individuals by default. Dating apps, for example, have first started catering to a heteronormative audience. Video games, as well, are known to cater to straight male gamers foremost.
Virtual reality games that offer avatars with customizable appearances often reduce the number of LGBTQ+ avatar options to just cisgender, straight characters. This pushes away the LGBTQ+ community, leading them to feel less inclined to involve themselves with virtual reality at all.
In addition, VR technology is notoriously difficult to access due to price. Through financial shortcomings, this already excludes the more disadvantaged LGBTQ+ members—such as those in developing and third-world nations—who may otherwise benefit from virtual therapy and finding a supportive space in inclusive virtual environments.
For augmented and virtual reality tech to be truly equitable, companies and developers need to look beyond just legal compliance. They need to take initiatives to promote safe, inclusive, and diverse spaces within virtual reality spaces. This starts by listening to diverse voices and gaining feedback from more people from underrepresented groups.
In addition, VR developers should keep in mind design decisions that may ostracize potential users such as LGBTQ+ members. This can start with offering customization options for avatars and non-heteronormative activities.
Virtual reality is not a passing fad, Meta’s and Microsoft’s significant investment in the metaverse and VR applications prove that it is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
VR has the genuine potential to grow and disrupt how things are done for the better. By allowing diverse voices to be part of the conversation as decisions are being made and policies are being developed, VR can be a safe and powerful technology for everyone.