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UK Police is Investigating a “Virtual Rape” in the Metaverse

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UK Police is Investigating a “Virtual Rape” in the Metaverse
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A digital twin has all the aspects of the real world, and not every aspect of the real world is joyous to experience. Recently, the European television news network Euronews reported that a teenage girl was allegedly “sexually assaulted” in the metaverse by a group of teenagers. But obviously, there was no physical assault.

Virtual Experiences Leaving Traumatic Marks

The authorities in charge of the investigation have kept the details confidential for now. Despite no physical harm, police sources hint possibilities of mental trauma on the victim. A senior officer told the UK-based newspaper Daily Mail that “There is an emotional and psychological impact on the victim that is longer-term than any physical injuries.”

Furthermore, how to move forward with the case is unclear as the incident does not fall under the existing law. It defines a sexual assault as non-consensual “physical touching” in a sexual manner. The present case does not involve any of the elements here.

Euronews also presents a discussion about whether police should be investigating metaverse crimes or not. The case has caught the attention of people questioning over allocation of law enforcement’s time and effort over metaverse crimes. Meanwhile, such cases are actually, in the real world, rising. Not-for-profit organization Rape Crisis England & Wales reports that out of 68,109 cases registered with the police, just 2.2 percent (1,498) were charged.

Safety researchers are concerned about such cases taking place in the metaverse. They believe virtual reality (VR) experiences can be heightened through content presented by using technologies like haptic suits. The touch-sensitive suit vibrates according to what is happening in a virtual environment. If a virtual avatar touches another in the metaverse, the controller can feel it.

Metaverse movie Ready Player One has showcased how this technology is supposed to work. When Samantha Cook (played by Olivia Cook) and Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) enter Distracted Globe, a fictional zero gravity night club, Wade’s avatar is able to sense touch by Samantha’s avatar.

In November 2021, a beta tester experienced a similarly troubling experience on Meta Platforms’ (formerly Facebook) Horizon Worlds as the teenage girl in this case. However, Meta’s internal review opined that she should have enabled the ‘Safe Zone’ feature, which surrounds an avatar with a protective virtual bubble to prevent others from closing by.

University of Washington’s Katherine Cross, who researches online harassment, says that “At the end of the day, the nature of virtual-reality spaces is such that it is designed to trick the user into thinking they are physically in a certain space, that their every bodily action is occurring in a 3D environment.” She further adds that “It’s part of the reason why emotional reactions can be stronger in that space, and why VR triggers the same internal nervous system and psychological responses.”

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