Is the Oculus Rift sexist? (plus response to criticism)

Last week, I wrote a provocative opinion piece for Quartz called “Is the Oculus Rift sexist?” I’m reposting it on my blog for posterity, but also because I want to address some of the critiques that I received. First, the piece itself:

Is the Oculus Rift sexist?

In the fall of 1997, my university built a CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) to help scientists, artists, and archeologists embrace 3D immersion to advance the state of those fields. Ecstatic at seeing a real-life instantiation of the Metaverse, the virtual world imagined in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, I donned a set of goggles and jumped inside. And then I promptly vomited.

I never managed to overcome my nausea. I couldn’t last more than a minute in that CAVE and I still can’t watch an IMAX movie. Looking around me, I started to notice something. By and large, my male friends and colleagues had no problem with these systems. My female peers, on the other hand, turned green.

What made this peculiar was that we were all computer graphics programmers. We could all render a 3D scene with ease. But when asked to do basic tasks like jump from Point A to Point B in a Nintendo 64 game, I watched my female friends fall short. What could explain this?

At the time any notion that there might be biological differences underpinning computing systems was deemed heretical. Discussions of gender and computing centered around services like Purple Moon, a software company trying to entice girls into gaming and computing. And yet, what I was seeing gnawed at me.

That’s when a friend of mine stumbled over a footnote in an esoteric army report about simulator sickness in virtual environments. Sure enough, military researchers had noticed that women seemed to get sick at higher rates in simulators than men. While they seemed to be able to eventually adjust to the simulator, they would then get sick again when switching back into reality.

Being an activist and a troublemaker, I walked straight into the office of the head CAVE researcher and declared the CAVE sexist. He turned to me and said: “Prove it.”

The gender mystery

Over the next few years, I embarked on one of the strangest cross-disciplinary projects I’ve ever worked on. I ended up in a gender clinic in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, interviewing both male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals as they began hormone therapy. Many reported experiencing strange visual side effects. Like adolescents going through puberty, they’d reach for doors—only to miss the door knob. But unlike adolescents, the length of their arms wasn’t changing—only their hormonal composition.

Scholars in the gender clinic were doing fascinating research on tasks like spatial rotation skills. They found that people taking androgens (a steroid hormone similar to testosterone) improved at tasks that required them to rotate Tetris-like shapes in their mind to determine if one shape was simply a rotation of another shape. Meanwhile, male-to-female transsexuals saw a decline in performance during their hormone replacement therapy.

Along the way, I also learned that there are more sex hormones on the retina than in anywhere else in the body except for the gonads. Studies on macular degeneration showed that hormone levels mattered for the retina. But why? And why would people undergoing hormonal transitions struggle with basic depth-based tasks?

Two kinds of depth perception

Back in the US, I started running visual psychology experiments. I created artificial situations where different basic depth cues—the kinds of information we pick up that tell us how far away an object is—could be put into conflict. As the work proceeded, I narrowed in on two key depth cues – “motion parallax” and “shape-from-shading.”

Motion parallax has to do with the apparent size of an object. If you put a soda can in front of you and then move it closer, it will get bigger in your visual field. Your brain assumes that the can didn’t suddenly grow and concludes that it’s just got closer to you.

Shape-from-shading is a bit trickier. If you stare at a point on an object in front of you and then move your head around, you’ll notice that the shading of that point changes ever so slightly depending on the lighting around you. The funny thing is that your eyes actually flicker constantly, recalculating the tiny differences in shading, and your brain uses that information to judge how far away the object is.

In the real world, both these cues work together to give you a sense of depth. But in virtual reality systems, they’re not treated equally.

The virtual-reality shortcut

When you enter a 3D immersive environment, the computer tries to calculate where your eyes are at in order to show you how the scene should look from that position. Binocular systems calculate slightly different images for your right and left eyes. And really good systems, like good glasses, will assess not just where your eye is, but where your retina is, and make the computation more precise.

It’s super easy—if you determine the focal point and do your linear matrix transformations accurately, which for a computer is a piece of cake—to render motion parallax properly. Shape-from-shading is a different beast. Although techniques for shading 3D models have greatly improved over the last two decades—a computer can now render an object as if it were lit by a complex collection of light sources of all shapes and colors—what they they can’t do is simulate how that tiny, constant flickering of your eyes affects the shading you perceive. As a result, 3D graphics does a terrible job of truly emulating shape-from-shading.

Tricks of the light

In my experiment, I tried to trick people’s brains. I created scenarios in which motion parallax suggested an object was at one distance, and shape-from-shading suggested it was further away or closer. The idea was to see which of these conflicting depth cues the brain would prioritize. (The brain prioritizes between conflicting cues all the time; for example, if you hold out your finger and stare at it through one eye and then the other, it will appear to be in different positions, but if you look at it through both eyes, it will be on the side of your “dominant” eye.)

What I found was startling (pdf). Although there was variability across the board, biological men were significantly more likely to prioritize motion parallax. Biological women relied more heavily on shape-from-shading. In other words, men are more likely to use the cues that 3D virtual reality systems relied on.

This, if broadly true, would explain why I, being a woman, vomited in the CAVE: My brain simply wasn’t picking up on signals the system was trying to send me about where objects were, and this made me disoriented.

My guess is that this has to do with the level of hormones in my system. If that’s true, someone undergoing hormone replacement therapy, like the people in the Utrecht gender clinic, would start to prioritize a different cue as their therapy progressed. 1
We need more research

However, I never did go back to the clinic to find out. The problem with this type of research is that you’re never really sure of your findings until they can be reproduced. A lot more work is needed to understand what I saw in those experiments. It’s quite possible that I wasn’t accounting for other variables that could explain the differences I was seeing. And there are certainly limitations to doing vision experiments with college-aged students in a field whose foundational studies are based almost exclusively on doing studies solely with college-age males. But what I saw among my friends, what I heard from transsexual individuals, and what I observed in my simple experiment led me to believe that we need to know more about this.

I’m excited to see Facebook invest in Oculus, the maker of the Rift headset. No one is better poised to implement Stephenson’s vision. But if we’re going to see serious investments in building the Metaverse, there are questions to be asked. 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?

Response to Criticism

1. “Things aren’t sexist!”

Not surprisingly, most people who responded negatively to my piece were up in arms about the title. Some people directed that at Quartz which was somewhat unfair. Although they originally altered the title, they reverted to my title within a few hours. My title was intentionally, “Is the Oculus Rift sexist?” This is both a genuine question and a provocation. I’m not naive enough to not think that people would react strongly to the question, just as my advisor did when I declared VR sexist almost two decades ago. But I want people to take that question seriously precisely because more research needs to be done.

Sexism is prejudice or discrimination on the basis of sex (typically against women). For sexism to exist, there does not need to be an actor intending to discriminate. People, systems, and organizations can operate in sexist manners without realizing it. This is the basis of implicit or hidden biases. Addressing sexism starts by recognizing bias within systems and discrimination as a product of systems in society.

What was interesting about what I found and what I want people to investigate further is that the discrimination that I identified is not intentional by scientists or engineers or simply the product of cultural values. It is a byproduct of a research and innovation cycle that has significant consequences as society deploys the resultant products. The discriminatory potential of deployment will be magnified if people don’t actively seek to address it, which is precisely why I drudged up this ancient work in this moment in time.

I don’t think that the creators of Oculus Rift have any intentions to discriminate against women (let alone the wide range of people who currently get nauseous in their system which is actually quite broad), but I think that if they don’t pay attention to the depth cue prioritization issues that I’m highlighting or if they fail to actively seek technological redress, they’re going to have a problem. More importantly, many of us are going to have a problem. All too often, systems get shipped with discriminatory byproducts and people throw their hands in the air and say, “oops, we didn’t intend that.”

I think that we have a responsibility to identify and call attention to discrimination in all of its forms. Perhaps I should’ve titled the piece “Is Oculus Rift unintentionally discriminating on the basis of sex?” but, frankly, that’s nothing more than an attempt to ask the question I asked in a more politically correct manner. And the irony of this is that the people who most frequently complained to me about my titling are those who loathe political correctness in other situations.

I think it’s important to grapple with the ways in which sexism is not always intentional but at the vary basis of our organizations and infrastructure, as well as our cultural practices.

2. The language of gender

I ruffled a few queer feathers by using the terms “transsexual” and “biological male.” I completely understand why contemporary transgender activists (especially in the American context) would react strongly to that language, but I also think it’s important to remember that I’m referring to a study from 1997 in a Dutch gender clinic. The term “cisgender” didn’t even exist. And at that time, in that setting, the women and men that I met adamantly deplored the “transgender” label. They wanted to make it crystal clear that they were transsexual, not transgender. To them, the latter signaled a choice.

I made a choice in this essay to use the language of my informants. When referring to men and women who had not undergone any hormonal treatment (whether they be cisgender or not), I added the label of “biological.” This was the language of my transsexually-identified informants (who, admittedly, often shortened it to “bio boys” and “bio girls”). I chose this route because the informants for my experiment identified as female and male without any awareness of the contested dynamics of these identifiers.

Finally, for those who are not enmeshed in the linguistic contestations over gender and sex, I want to clarify that I am purposefully using the language of “sex” and not “gender” because what’s at stake has to do with the biological dynamics surrounding sex, not the social construction of gender.

Get angry, but reflect and engage

Critique me, challenge me, tell me that I’m a bad human for even asking these questions. That’s fine. I want people to be provoked, to question their assumptions, and to reflect on the unintentional instantiation of discrimination. More than anything, I want those with the capacity to take what I started forward. There’s no doubt that my pilot studies are the beginning, not the end of this research. If folks really want to build the Metaverse, make sure that it’s not going to unintentionally discriminate on the basis of sex because no one thought to ask if the damn thing was sexist.

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36 thoughts on “Is the Oculus Rift sexist? (plus response to criticism)

  1. PAPPP

    Reflecting on my own immediate response, there is a “No one can have this technology because it works better for some people than others” implication to the use of the word sexism in this context, which is objectionable, particularly when the disparity follows from a technological limitation. It is a line of reasoning that very quickly generates statements like “We have a vastly better, more affordable selection of persistent, reversible birth control technologies that work for women than for men, so it is sexist to offer them.” Such disparities should be a call to find ways to improve availability and effectiveness, but not a mark against the existing technology.

    Technically speaking, it is dramatically easier to generate motion parallax than to handle shading – as far as I know (and I am absolutely not an expert in this area) it is possible to render with saccade information to fake shape-from shading… with a high speed eye tracker (last I saw those rigs are in the $5-10k range), and a large-single-digits multiple faster computer that can real time render the fast shifts on the same scene, so doing so would place VR back into the exclusive domain of the extremely well–heeled.

    There are existing nasty edge-cases for this kind of thing, like the Netflix-ADA situation with closed captioning a few years ago, and it bears consideration, but a condemnation of technologies with inherent limitations, or limitations imposed to make them accessible, if they also make them exclusionary is no more productive than ignoring the issue altogether.

  2. nobody

    In response to “PAPPP,” above: the fear of the “No one can have this technology…” sentiment seems like an obvious strawman. Or at least a misapplied kneejerk response to seeing anything labelled sexist. (But I gather you were possibly just being open about your initial gut reaction and didn’t intend that paragraph as an actual critique?)

    But I’m going to let myself kneejerk from a different angle, jumping off from this blockquote:

    What I found was startling (pdf). Although there was variability across the board, biological men were significantly more likely to prioritize motion parallax. Biological women relied more heavily on shape-from-shading. In other words, men are more likely to use the cues that 3D virtual reality systems relied on.

    I think it’s worth being extra vigilant when discussing biological differences to specify when a word like “significantly” is being used in its technical, statistical sense (a significant enough difference to be considered unlikely due to random chance alone) or a more colloquial one (which would be prone to suggesting a much higher magnitude of difference) — and to flat out inform the reader if the differences in averages between the two studied groups are far smaller than the overlap between the array of results for individuals in each group, lest the reader walk away with an understanding that sex differences are much greater and much more internally consistent than the data suggests.

    There’s a tremendously good chance that I’m misreading your paper, but it looks like Experiment 1 showed no statistically significant differences and the differences in Experiment 2, while statistically significant, were rather small? (On top of that, doesn’t this line from the results section for Experiment 2 call into question the sex-difference conclusions you’re drawing from it in this post: “Given this data, an actual preference for a given cue seems non-existent. Instead, it seems as though the subject regularly prefers the default combination.”)

    (And it doesn’t look like the paper itself includes the data necessary to determine how much overlap there was in the variety of responses from one group to the other?)

    All that said, this line of inquiry is super neat, and it seems obvious that more work along these lines would be valuable as we shape our technological future. My worry here has less to do with questioning the validity of the science than in how those results filter down to the culture at large and influence our understanding of gender/sex differences in general.

  3. PJ

    So sex-linked diseases are therefore all sexist as well? As for a new title, how about ‘Is VR-nausea sex-linked?’?

  4. Tired and old

    This is reality. Some things are simply unfair. Even if the shading/parallax bias where to be accounted for and the vr motion sickness where to be accounted for what would the next complaint be? I am betting nearly anything that for example in a competitive gaming environment in such a device you would find MASSIVE disparity between men and women playing the game. Is this sexist? No. Unintentional byproducts that effect one gender over another are not sexist. Next you will be telling me that the fact that women undergo menstruation is somehow discriminatory. The entire idea of both discrimination and sexism require an intelligent actor. Its like asking why the universe exists, there is no “why” as why is extremely anthropomorphic. The only other point I have here is, If you have found this disparity, and have the obvious technical skill to find the difference and find a suitable replacement, why instead of complaining on some random blog do YOU not begin research on a way to bring to the market a set of VR equipment that doesn’t make you sick? The fact that you adjust with time and no longer get motion sickness after a few uses of current gen equipment shows me at least that your just whining. If you want equality your going to have to realize that at some point you cannot lower the world to your level but must instead rise to the level of your peers (in this case males). There are many things with your visual processing that as a male I cannot even come close to. As a man my color vision for example is only a fraction of yours. You can not only see colors I cant even perceive, but your also better (again just naturally)at picking out patterns and objects hidden within others. We are different. Neither superior nor inferior to the other but different. This is reality, this is nature. Are you going to label reality and nature sexist? If you do so your definition of sexist is what is wrong. Tl;dr get gud

  5. somebody

    think that we have a responsibility to identify and call attention to discrimination in all of its forms. Perhaps I should’ve titled the piece “Is Oculus Rift unintentionally discriminating on the basis of sex?” but, frankly, that’s nothing more than an attempt to ask the question I asked in a more politically correct manner.

    Clearly you recognize that intent matters. See eg. the concept of mens rea in law. It’s the difference between accounting errors securities fraud. Between manslaughter and murder.

    If you expressly stipulate that Oculus Rift’s designers did not intentionally and deliberately discriminate against women, why do you intentionally and deliberately use the language of intent?

    Or do you deny that declaring a thing “sexist” in any way implicates the intent of its designers?

    Are you seriously suggesting that publicly accusing a thing of being “sexist” is not inviting people to think of its designer as, you know, a terrible, terrible person?

    Are you honestly unaware that you are conflating these designers with Victorian patriarchs and Mad Men marketers, who, most assuredly, had some terrible and intentional beliefs and behaviors?

    I think you are well aware, which is why you allow as to how your title could be considered “politically incorrect”. My own description would be significantly harsher.

    Sad – you could have communicated your findings (which are fascinating and noteworthy) to the Oculus Rift team in a way that fired their intrinsic geek curiosity.

    Now they have a more pressing problem, namely, defending their integrity.

  6. Dan Brickley

    Fascinating discussion, though the title feels rather clickbaity. reports age-related differences in stereoscopic 3d (younger users had more trouble). FWIW excerpting the section on gender:

    “Gender. There was no effect of gender (F(1, 186) = .000, p = .997) on internal
    ocular symptoms, nor any interaction between gender and display dimension (F(1, 186)
    = 2.114, p = .148).
    There was no effect of gender on external ocular symptoms (F(1, 184) = 1.437, p
    = .232), but a marginally significant dimension by gender interaction (F(1, 184) = 4.057,
    p=.045). Women had greater external ocular symptoms (mean = .201) than men (mean
    = -.180) in 2D viewing; there was no difference between women (mean = -.055) and
    men (.042) in stereoscopic 3D viewing.
    There was no effect of gender (F(1, 186) = .962, p = .328) nor an interaction
    between gender and display dimension (F(1, 190) = .060, p = .807) on physical

  7. Neil Kandalgaonkar

    Great idea; interesting research; unfortunate headline.

    When I saw the headline pop up elsewhere, I slotted it as pop culture clickbait and didn’t click through. It did catch my attention and stick in my mind, but the thought was “Really? Please.” Not because I routinely dismiss stories about sexism (quite the opposite); I thought it would just be denouncing popular thing A as evil thing B because controversy sells.

    But you actually have research, so I think your choice of headline didn’t communicate how serious your message was.

    I have to agree with the other commenters that if you didn’t intend to denounce the designers of the Oculus Rift, the word “sexist” was the wrong choice. I think if we were to tally up uses of the word “sexist” the vast majority would be epithets, accusing the target of malice or shaming them for their ignorance.

  8. qwertyuio

    Sex dimorphism is a real thing that allows humans to reproduce and evolve over time. Post-modernist activists attempt to obfuscate this observable fact for political ends; there’s little need to cater to them

  9. Neil Kandalgaonkar

    Sorry if my previous comment sounded harsh – in my time I must have written hundreds of headlines and it’s hard to strike the right balance. I don’t think it was particularly bad, more like suboptimal.

  10. Aaron

    I hope you’ll forgive my rudeness in the following, but given the firestorm of controversy your article touched off, I don’t think it very far out of line.

    In what fashion is this article anything other than a rehash for general audiences of your 2000 baccalaureate thesis, with “Oculus” and “sexism” dropped in for the sake of controversy? The current state of the art in 3D rendering is vastly improved over that of the time in which you wrote your thesis; for example, there, you call out a lack of normal mapping as problematic for a visual system tuned to prioritize shading cues over parallax, but nowhere in this article do you mention that normal mapping, unheard of in realtime rendering on the commodity equipment of 2000, is now effectively ubiquitous, and certainly within the abilities of any GPU capable of driving the Rift HMD.

    Such a difference, which according to your own earlier work should be highly significant, could easily serve as a jumping-off point for a discussion of how rendering technology has changed over the last fifteen years, which in turn would work well as introduction to analysis of the results obtained by rerunning your earlier experiments with today’s technology instead of yesterday’s. But no such discussion, no such analysis, is presented here. Instead, the implicit assumption is that the Oculus suffers from exactly the same limitations as did the technology available when you carried out your original experiments in 2000.

    I have had considerable respect in the past for your work. What I’m seeing now is severely disappointing; it smacks of provoking controversy for controversy’s own sake, and I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect better from a researcher of your demonstrated caliber.

  11. Richard

    I’m not sure that behaviour is sexist if it’s a consequence of genuine physical differences in the sexes. Let’s say I was employing people who needed to be able to lift heavy weights all day. It would be sexist to consider men only for the job, but it wouldn’t be sexist to consider only people who could pass a weight lifting test, even if it turned out that 90% of the successful applicants were male (to make up a random stereotypical example, I have no idea if such a sex difference would be apparent in reality).

    Likewise, if it turned out that a VR headset was a vital aid in a particular kind of surgery, it wouldn’t be sexist to require surgeons to be able to use the thing, even if it turned out that 90% once again were male.

    However it cuts both ways, and there are other tasks where females are more likely to excel. However we should be willing to consider people as individuals, and allow them to do what they are capable of doing without imposing artifical barriers (i.e., the 10% of female applicants for the hypothical examples above).

  12. flipwad

    wtf@ this brainless banter, you are from harvard, give us good stuff, not chick conversation stuff. Tell us about diff political stuff, how is the nsa or govt evading our lives this time. yada yada

  13. Ben Dovar

    This is why we’ll never have gender equality. Ridiculous pieces like this obscure the real and serious issues. Good going to setting women back another 10 years.

  14. Aurora

    I find this topic very interesting but want to hint towards one thing to consider if you ever plan to do these experiments with transsexual people undergoing Hormone replacement Therapy. There is mounting evidence that there are brain structures which are different in terms of gender specifity already before a hormone therapy. Some Transwomen for example have some female brain properties even before estrogen is administered. It is less the case if the person is transitioning mostly out of social role reaons but more pronounced if that person really deeply fells misgendered at birth. The administration of a hormone therapy then can increase these differences. The same is treu for Transmen who already show brain functions more similar to men than to women despite high estrogen, low testosterone and a XX gonosome configuration. So if you would do these experiments, it would be massively interesting in terms of gender studies, I am sure the people in Utrecht would be interested in such a project and it would produce a scientific paper. But keep in mind then to do control experiments before and into a hormone therapy as well as try to distinguish the different motivations that drive people towards getting hormone therapy – not all of them are equal in terms of how their brains are configured. Thanks

  15. Michael M.

    I wonder about the connections with migraine. Migraineurs are more prone to motion sickness. People with visual vertigo tend to be migraineurs. Migraineurs are predominantly female, and female migraineurs often note menstrual cycle correlations. All these observations fit with yours.

    Prism adaptation experiments might be interesting along these lines.

    I think developmental studies would be fruitful along a few lines. Is there a gender difference in cue weighting and sensitivity to cue conflict at younger ages, particularly at pre-pubertal ages? At what age does it emerge? How much does experience play a role?

    The lack of accounting for vergence eye movements is another source of sensory conflict. Last time I looked at the question several years ago, many rendering systems assumed visual axes of the two eye were parallel even though they only approximately parallel for viewing far objects.

  16. Eric

    I was disappointed in this response, not because your clarifications aren’t quite valid (especially the trans clarifications, they make perfect sense), but because I was hoping you’d address what I see as the real shortcoming of the original article. I understand why you felt a need to delve into semantics and political correctness, it’s because people see these words and react, and you hear about it on social media. But the issues people are giving you feedback about have nothing to do with your assertions themselves.

    I’m more interested in things like: Have you tried the newest Oculus Rift prototype? Did you have a similar experience? I understand the grabby marketing appeal of your headline, but this piece has nothing to do with Oculus other than mentioning the Facebook investment. If you’re going to name a piece of technology by name (and call it sexist), shouldn’t you at least have experience with the device, or quote some women who have, at the very least?

    Your premise is based on what sounds like very thorough and exciting research into visual perception, but that CAVE, a 17-year-old attempt at immersive 3D, might as well have been a hundred years ago in the field of computer graphics. Perhaps latency and positional tracking do eliminate the issues you describe, and following up would let us know if things have gotten better, worse, or stayed the same. This is where your personal reaction would be compelling: you vomited before, what happens now? Or you could get a quote from Oculus, or another head-mounted 3D display outfit, regarding your concern and their experience with it. It’s a big missing piece of the puzzle and central to the whole piece.

    Maybe you didn’t have the time or viewer eyeball count) to do this stuff before, but I’d love to see a followup followup where you address these things and the current state of the technology you put in the title of the article!

    In any event, thanks for writing a solid piece with novel insight into 3D perception, I enjoyed it.

  17. William

    I am a male, but I too find all all simulated 3d makes turn green.

    All 3D IMAX screens, 3D games like Quake and Doom make me nauseous regardless of whether I am playing the game or watching a friend.


  18. Emile

    Thanks for this article. There are a few questions that remain unanswered for me.
    In the paper in which you describe your experiment and its results – here : – you write you don’t see any significant sex differences : “While the initial goal of this project and research was to address what potential individual differences may exist, doing so within the realm of this project was impossible”, so why do you say in this article that you’ve noted differences…? Maybe I’ve misunderstood the paper, I have to say this is not at all my field, but still, even in the statistics I haven’t seen any relevant sex differences.

  19. Ben Hammersley

    I posted a link to this on Twitter the other day, and had an objection about the intentionality of the sexism, but I *very much* take your point, here, my emphasis:

    Sexism is prejudice or discrimination on the basis of sex (typically against women). For sexism to exist, there does not need to be an actor intending to discriminate. People, systems, and organizations can operate in sexist manners without realizing it. This is the basis of implicit or hidden biases. Addressing sexism starts by recognizing bias within systems and discrimination as a product of systems in society.

    …and see now what you mean. A good provocation, and one from which I have totally learnt. So, thanks, danah, as ever.

  20. Patrick Flood

    Whole bunch of dudes here with some bruised egos. Sexism is built into our environment/ecology/technology. Thanks for uncovering it. The game of evading responsibility by switching the burden to proving intent is disingenuous. Sexism and racism are baked into things all the time, regardless of intent, and our job as designers is to bake it out. Pay no attention to the people who aren’t serious about being more inclusive in their design. They are merely a side show. Good work.

  21. Vineel Shah

    The headline and academic bent obscure the more salient point — if Facebook (and Google and whomever) want to succeed in creating the metaverse, they are going to have to cater to both women and men. They must take seriously the possibility that their existing tech succeeds differently with the genders, and FIX IT. If they don’t, it’ll be stuck as a somewhat fun hard-core game technology for a relatively small percentage of users.

  22. Don R.

    By this definition, there are lots of things that can trivially be called “sexist”. Any system that relies on color to convey information is sexist, because men are far more likely to be colorblind! (So by that reasoning, the Oculus is definitely sexist, though not for the reasons claimed.) I think some care is warranted when picking words – and headlines – because you can quickly dilute a very important issue by turning it into link bait.

  23. Nonny de la Peña

    I am a woman working out of USC School of Cinematic Arts who has been building immersive virtual reality environments to depict NONFICTION stories that I call immersive journalism, which have traveled to major exhibitions – Sundance, Online News Association, World Economic Forum and to the Tribeca Film Festival in two weeks. I have put thousands of people through these experiences with our hand-crafted goggles that Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus, originally helped build in our USC MxR lab. I have collected solid survey data and certainly have an extraordinary amount of anecdotal evidence indicating that very, very, VERY few people have been made nauseous witnessing my experiences. This includes many people, both male and female, who told me that they are susceptible to motion sickness but actually had no problems in our system, wearing our very wide field of view goggles that are tracked by super fast Phasespace cameras. The Oculus Rift is designed for sit-down encounters. My experiences are designed to let the user walk, look and move around freely. While I am still researching the many reasons why my content and the design of our system and goggles may make a difference, I can guarantee I am seeing NO gender distinctions in responses.

  24. Doctor Jay

    This is really interesting. If your suspicions are confirmed, that women and men have differences in the way they perceive depth, then we will have a very concrete example of how gender differences propagate themselves. Because from what I know (and I was an engineer at Silicon Graphics for a decade) most of the people working on 3d graphics were men, maybe 80 percent. I would hazard that exactly none of them expected there to be a relevant difference in the vision systems of men and women.

    So as they were developing the technology, since it worked for most of them, they presumed that it would work for everyone. It seems odd to me to refer to this attitude as sexist; it’s kind of the opposite of all the gender essentialism and genetic determinism that plague us. However, this would lead to a system that gives men and women different experiences, and that difference has the effect of excluding women (who wants to be vomiting all the time?)

  25. Calvino

    With respect to the basic question about perception in simulated 3D worlds — without any research backing, I want to say I think the research questions may be a bit biased toward a kind of visual-only account that itself may be associated with a generic cultural sexism that favors vision and cognition over other forms of intelligence and embodiment.

    More specifically, I suspect kinesthetic feedback processes interact with visual aspects of 3D perception.

    To research that further, in addition to brain imaging experiments, one might check whether the ability to form 3D perception in virtual worlds is different, not by gender, but for groups such as athletes, dancers, and others with refined, interactive, full-body spatial skills.

  26. Mark G

    I’m surprised neither the author nor the commenters mentioned vestibular-ocular disparity as a major source of nausea. I get that instantly when viewing a VR scene where my POV is moving a lot.

  27. Owen F

    Unless I’m missing something, there is no evidence that the author ever tried the Oculus or used it in any of her experiments. If that’s true, then this article (both it’s title and it’s content, which both call out Oculus for being potentially sexist) is shameful.

  28. BJF

    So, reading through the thesis, we finally come across this..

    “While the initial goal of this project and research was to address what potential individual differences may exist,
    doing so within the realm of this project was impossible. ”

    So, outdated by 14 years AND inconclusive?..What does ANY of this have to do with Oculus again?

  29. Gustav

    People don’t just think up a thing and make the final product. It takes several iterations of testing, tweaking, in some cases rewriting and retooling. And in each iteration there people testing, usually lots of people. The question is, did the designers of Oculus Rift include women in their testing? Why wasn’t this problem discovered in design.

    If the designers did not include women, then it’s absolutely fair to call them sexist. Yes, it may be unintentional, so we shouldn’t demonizes them, but they’re sexist, at least in the design of the Oculus Rift.

    I’ve done sexist things in my life, and so have each and every one of you. It’s time to stop being offended and getting all defensive, and instead admit it, so we can improve ourselves for the betterment if everyone.

  30. Nate

    Linked from comments to a Ars Technica article on motion sickness.

    I found this very thought provoking. I’d never heard of the variations in depth perception, but it strikes home as being a reasonable design issue. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way with shading since the 90’s. While I would suspect there is more to motion sickness than just this, it is a very interesting avenue to consider for design. Similar to maintaining awareness of color blindness for UI design.

  31. William Norris

    There is a tremendous possible link here that I am surprised no one seems to have noticed. Are there no sports fans among the posters? During all the investigations into the steroid scandals in Major League Baseball, one of the stated assumptions was that anabolic steroids do not affect vision. You seem to suggest that they can have a considerable effect on depth perception, and by extension, hand-eye coordination. This could very well explain why users were able to get the “good wood” on the ball with such regularity, making a shambles of home run records!

  32. Yury

    The suggested explanation of the hypothetical sim sickness differences between sexes based on differences in motion parallax and shape from shading processing between male and female brains (or retinas?) is extremely far fetched. There is no link to the pdf describing this ‘startling’ discovery, by the way. A much simpler, and more likely explanation of the gender difference, if it exists, is based on the well known explanation of the sim sickness and motion sickness based on sensory conflict. The conflict is primarily between balance and vision. Balance sense reports acceleration/turn, while vision sense reports none (motion sickness) or, vice versa, vision reports acceleration, while balance reports none (sim sickness). The brain interprets the conflict as “OMG, what a mess, I must’ve eaten something bad!”. Vomiting results as an extreme reaction. It is also a common knowledge that women, especially when ovulating or pregnant are more sensitive to poisons than men. For a good reason, of course. So, there is no rocket science here: a woman’s brain is just more fussy about poisons than a man’s.

  33. A

    This is bull.

    I never got this motion sickness effect. I watched IMAX movies and 3d holograms happily, with no ill effects. When I had lots of estrogen in my body, it made no difference. Nothing changed.

    My mother, on the other hand, always complained of motion sickness. After she experienced a dramatic reduction of estrogen, she continued to be seasick from IMAX and 3d (and footage from handheld cameras.)

    My fine motor coordination is also crap. Having lots of testosterone in my body did not change this, nor did a lack of both testosterone and estrogen.

    Motion sickness involves the inner ear, not only the retina.

    But don’t take my anecdotal word for it: Here’s a study!

  34. JS

    It’s not sexist, the definition of sexism in the post is wrong! Sexism (just like racism) is (potentially discriminatory) judgment of individual based on some attribute of the group it belongs to. It has nothing to do with whether the judgment is actually true or false for the group (on average). So, saying “Jane will get VR sickness, because she is a woman, therefore she cannot get the job” is sexist; compare “Jane always gets VR sickness, therefore she cannot get the job”, which is a perfectly valid judgement (if the antecedent is correct) and is not discrimination.

    So no, there has to be an agent which makes the sexist judgement. Sexist things do not exist, only unfair things. It’s unfair that someone gets sick on VR, for instance. And there should be different policies to deal with sexism (of people or other agents making judgements – something like Google?) versus unfairness (of nature). Because while we can change (to some extent) behavior of agents, we can hardly change nature. So sexism (by the above definition) can be potentially eradicated, but unfairness has to be adapted to.

    I always cringe when people use perceived reality as a moral justification for gender equality. No, the moral justification should be independent of reality, we should strive to judge individuals independently and give them maximum freedom of choice. What, according to some group attribute, is the person is likely to be, shouldn’t matter at all. Because it will likely come bite us; it will probably be different, more likely than not. But unless it is linked to specific gene or hormone, it’s not even worth of scientific study IMHO.

  35. Nicole Simon

    As somebody with heavy motion sickness I’ve read this and just went “huh”. Having just been to Star Wars in 3D and for the first time being so nauseated during the film’s fight scenes that I had to close my eyes until they where over I thank you just for the information to ban IMAX from my list too.

    I am also the kind of person who wants augmented and virtual reality badly. If these problems are true, it will mean a bias towards “what men are interested in” versus “what women are interested in”. Why? If just looking at the results will make you sick you will not work in this business. Knowing about these results could lead towards a different approach which will have no implication for who do fine right now but make a HUGE difference for the rest of us.

    And you should not really care about the gender thing in this. Remember the worst hangover you have ever had, with splitting headaches and being completely nauseated just by moving your head. Now imagine your best friend having this and you never being able to play your favorite game with him or her.

    (I get more or less sick in anything moving which I am not controlling myself. My interpretation is that since it is my brain which is giving the command to do something, it already knows / correlates the results).

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