Does Virtual Reality Literally Make Most Women Sick?
danah boyd has a very important post that anyone even remotely interested in the future of Oculus Rift and other virtual reality platforms should read this weekend. It suggests a fundamental challenge most people in VR haven't been dealing with (far as I can tell), and as danah often does -- being among the very best academics specializing in technology -- she obligates us all to think about the solution. Essentially, based on some preliminary research she cites and has conducted herself, she believes virtual reality technology like Oculus Rift might disproportionately make most females nauseous. Her key conclusion:
I’d posit that the problems of nausea and simulator sickness that many people report when using VR headsets go deeper than pixel persistence and latency rates. What I want to know, and what I hope someone will help me discover, is whether or not biology plays a fundamental role in shaping people’s experience with immersive virtual reality. In other words, are systems like Oculus fundamentally (if inadvertently) sexist in their design?
Read the rest here, especially the research which supports her concern. (I have some more thoughts here, related to danah's skepticism over Second Life during its hype period.) The thing is, I know several women who work in VR technology, like Jeri Ellsworth (pictured here) who co-created CastAR, the Augmented/Virtual Reality System. At the same time, the fact remains that VR is overwhelmingly dominated by men. Why is that?
My initial assumption: Oculus Rift is mainly appealing to men simply because the VR system is first being embraced by hardcore first-person shooter gamers, who are overwhelmingly men. But now I'm concerned that I have it backwards. If danah's concerns are borne out by more research, VR mostly attracts men for the same reason first-person shooters also mostly attract men: We men are much more likely to find these experiences immersive and enjoyable. While women (if this bears out) are much more likely to vomit.
I've seriously been thinking about devoting much or most of New World Notes to covering VR technology. But just yesterday, New World Notes writer Janine Hawkins told me this: "I'm very sensitive to motion sickness so I've always sort of written off the Oculus Rift as a thing I won't really be able to make use of." And if her sensitivity extends to most women, we all need to step back and look at this problem at a fundamental level. Because if VR is apt to make half the world's population sick, its future is very much in doubt.
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