For His Eyes Only

Are women being left behind by the biased design of VR experiences?


It was a fresh spring Saturday morning, and I was excited about
the adventure I was about to embark on. I was on my way to try some new “experiences” at a documentary film festival VR pop-up. The
VR documentaries ranged from a 6 minute piece about an anti-bullying crusader to a 30-minute exploration of a world-famous music festival. When I arrived, I signed my waiver and got ready for the journey, selecting the longest VR doc, with a run time of 30 minutes.

VR is making a substantial impact across multiple industries, from real estate, to medicine, to gaming, to the cinema, and millions have become invested in its seemingly infinite applications. New production studios are opening monthly, and there is always a very curious audience awaiting the newest gaming experience. The experience I was about to be immersed in represented years of software and hardware development and innovation. From the more rudimentary 360°-view VR to the fully immersive environments of today – which use hardware like the Omni treadmill to simulate walking, running, and jumping, as well as haptic gloves, like the Manus VR Development Kit – it is clear that the evolution of VR is still being shaped.

This was not my first VR rodeo though. Over the years, I’ve tried some of the earliest prototypes and helped to fund new VR projects as a committee member for an innovation fund that supports bleeding-edge technology development. So, after chatting with the VR popup worker and letting him know I was up to speed, I strapped the headset on and got ready for the documentary.

Along with my anticipation was a bit of fear. The first time I had ever put on a headset – and every time since – I had experienced headaches and the spins. I’ve never had a VR experience where I’ve been able to watch past the five-minute mark. Each time I go into the “other world,” I spend the better part of the time wondering whether I’ll be able to tough it out, push past the dizziness, and finally enter another side of consciousness, where I can be one with the headset. I always hope to end up in a place where I can say goodbye to real life and fully immerse myself in one of the many other amazing worlds that storytellers are bringing to life using VR – a format that will be funded to the tune of $30B by 2020.

Opening my eyes as I entered into the experience, I suspended my disbelief and tried to relax. From the top of my head to the 
tips of my toes, I tried to let go, hoping that this would enable my body to move fluidly through the experience. The first five minutes were lovely; the system offered sophisticated navigation options, amazing overhead POV shots, and the choice to capture expansive landscapes. But as I was twisting and turning into the story, I leaned in 100% – and within a minute, VR vertigo became part of my experience. I leaned back out, determined to get through 
the rest of the experience, but I had a very real concern that I might lose my breakfast if I kept going. Off the headset slid from my head, and off I went to drink some water, negotiate the sensory conflict with my brain, and recalibrate for the day.

I left convinced it wasn’t just me. Could I really be the only one who was missing out on the wonders of the VR world? Was I destined 
to watch while others used VR to progress their minds, bodies, and story experiences? Was I the only one who wouldn’t get to experience all the VR content being created for Oculus Gear, HTC Vive, and the many other headsets entering the marketplace?

Once I dove into the research, it became clear that I wasn’t alone. Women are more likely to experience motion sickness than men, a fact that has been well documented over the decades. 
One large study conducted by Lawther and Griffin in 1988 indicated that the female-to-male ratio for experiencing seasickness symptoms while onboard a ferry was approximately 5:3. Not only are women more likely to experience motion sickness, but their symptoms are also often more acute. Newer research suggests the female-to-male ratio for the incidence of motion sickness symptoms caused by VR is even higher than it is for seasickness, with one 2017 study by Munafo, Diedrick, and Stroffregan (published in Experimental Brain Research) indicating a ratio of 4:1 for vomiting caused by VR.

This means that we are designing an immersive experience that almost half the women in the world may not be able to engage in. They will struggle, get dizzy, vomit, get a taste of what real vertigo is, and perhaps even pass out. This also means that up to 37% of the female population may never buy, create, or consume VR content. While many women are blazing trails and creating beautiful work in VR today, many other women will continue to face significant challenges engaging in the VR industry, which has already required handbooks, manuals, and even quotas to ensure women are included.

From the zoetrope, to the camera obscura, to the VR systems 
of today, humans have long been imagining and designing ways to create illusions. No tool for creating illusions has become so pervasive so quickly and has the potential to impact so many parts of our lives as VR. If women are limited in their ability to participate compared to men, there could be major implications for everything from purchasing behaviors to our social interactions.

Is it possible to design VR differently so that everyone can participate? Should we perhaps treat VR like the LaserDisc of innovation, jumping ahead to AR as we once did to DVD? Projections show that AR will receive funding totaling approximately $90M by 2020, and thanks to its less invasive nature on our senses, it could be a better option for those who experience VR-induced motion sickness. By focusing on VR, we could all be distracted by the shiny penny, while AR is really the gold coin that we should be designing for to ensure inclusivity.

the author

Rachel Noonan

Rachel is director, marketing, communications and strategy at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and a master of design candidate at OCAD University.