Closing the Gender Gap in Virtual Reality

When one half of the population experiences VR differently than the other half, it's an issue that needs to be solved.

Gemma Busoni was only 14 went she went to her first hackathon. It was part of the nationwide CodeDay network of events with the workshops designed to encourage students who might not otherwise drift into technology careers. At the time, the inner-city, L.A. girl born in El Salvador was surprised to find her calling there.

"I learned to make a video game, and I got hooked," Busoni said. "I then got involved with robotics, started making games and eventually moved into virtual reality."

Things happened very quickly after that. Busoni, now 19, started a nonprofit for tech-minded city kids and is co-founder of DiscoVR Labs, an educational VR startup. She's also one of many young entrepreneurial technophiles working on a decidedly 21st century dilemma: Making virtual reality an equal playing field for men and women.

It's a problem the industry didn't quite expect: A growing body of research indicates that men and women experience virtual reality quite differently. This isn't about the recent and horrible stories of sexual harassment in VR. It's a more fundamental conundrum: It seems that women process the sensory immersion of VR in different ways than men - on a biological level. All indications are that, as a species, we're going to be spending a lot more time in VR in coming years. When one half of the population experiences VR differently than the other half, it's an issue.

"There are a lot of fundamental differences when it comes to the human body," Busoni said. "Lots of hormonal differences and perception differences that have to be accounted for during the process of immersion development."

DiscoVR Labs is dedicated to developing "experiential learning" systems that use VR as a tool for education. As the company evolves its educational material, the designers are looking closely at how gender affects the learning process. "We try lots of experimenting, testing what works and what doesn't, analyzing retention rates," Busoni said.

Why do men and women seem to learn differently in VR? There are plenty of theories. Rebecca Hite, an assistant professor of STEM education at Texas Tech University, specializes in precisely this area. Her research has found that, while both sexes are able to comprehend and learn in virtual environments, there are statistically significant differences in how males and females process spatial information - for example, rotating an object in 3-D space.

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"There is a body of research suggesting women have poorer spatial ability than men," Hite said. "However, when partitioning spatial memory from spatial ability, other studies have shown that women fared better than men, suggesting spatial processing may be genetically, perhaps evolutionarily, different between the sexes."

Hite's work focuses on educational VR, and suggests there are cognitive differences between how men and women learn in virtual reality. But VR, of course, encompasses much more than education. What about games and films and all of the other forms of VR? Virtual reality has been on the cultural schedule as the Next Big Thing for a suspiciously long time now. What's the hold up?

Well, one of the major speed bumps to widespread adoption of VR is the phenomenon of simulator sickness. Simply put, too many people, upon first experiencing virtual reality, become nauseous and dizzy. It's the virtual equivalent of motion sickness, and it's been a problem in the industry since day one. Developers have spent a long time tweaking technical issues like resolution and latency to try to solve it.

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Along the way, they encountered another odd complication: For years, anecdotal evidence suggested women tended to get sick more than men. In 2014, marquee researcher and media scholar Danah Boyd published results of her own scientific testing on the matter. Her findings - that actual biological sex characteristics affect perception in VR - were published in a widely read and deliberately provocative article "Is the Oculus Rift sexist?" The contention: Systems like the Oculus Rift, largely developed by men, inadvertently discriminate against women.

Emerging research seems to back this up. Thomas Stoffregen, professor of kinesiology with the University of Minnesota, is currently doing work in the area, running tests with the Oculus Rift specifically. So far, the results are pretty alarming.

"We got hold of an Oculus Rift and we took it down to the lab," Stoffregen said. "Sure enough, women were more than twice as likely as men to get sick in virtual reality than men."

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There are many potential reasons for this, Stoffregen said. For one thing, previous research has shown that motion sickness is simply more common among women than men, whether in the virtual world or the real world. But more importantly, virtual reality systems have to be carefully calibrated to approximate the sensation of actual presence in a virtual world. A system built by men may feel off to women for the simplest of reasons.

"It's good old fashioned sexual dimorphism," Stoffregen said. "Men tend to be taller and women tend to be shorter. Generally, the center of mass is lower in women and higher in men. Those two basic differences in physical form are extremely important."

Other factors may be involved as well. Click around online and you'll find all sorts of weirdness involving terms like motion parallax, luminescence cues, shape-from-shading and sense of presence. While there's no consensus on what causes these gender differences in VR, there's general agreement now that they exist.

And that's where female VR entrepreneurs like Busoni come back into the picture. By bringing a woman's perspective to VR - quite literally - she hopes to build a more equitable virtual world from the ground up. She's in a good place. This new wave of virtual reality development is generally seen as one of the more diverse areas in the male-dominated tech world.

"I've always been pretty passionate about education and accessibility," Busoni said. "I've never felt as welcome in a community as I have in the VR community. Everyone understands that we need to create the VR industry and environment together, so we build each other up."