The study measured body movement, with participants playing a Rift game for 15 minutes and researchers recording the time it took for someone to feel nauseous. Of the 35 percent of subjects who felt unwell within ten minutes, 70 percent were women. It’s a major design flaw, says Stoffregen.
“Engineers, the people who design VR systems, tend to think about motion sickness in terms of the technology—resolution, frame rate, things like that—and in terms of the sensory systems that the technology was designed to stimulate, usually the eyes,” he told me. “That’s the origin of the impetus to focus on things like visual field size. But there’s no science behind it.”
Instead, Stoffregen believes that “susceptibility is related to the degree to which people can stabilise their own bodies.” In other words, on the whole, men are able to stabilise their bodies better than women because they have higher centres of gravity, larger feet, and are heavier. This, Stoffregen says, is why men are also less susceptible to more traditional forms of motion sickness like seasickness.
“It’s not surprising that men and women respond differently in a postural sense to unfamiliar motion situations,” he said. “A person using VR must control and stabilize their own body. The more compelling the VR, the more likely it is that the person will try to stabilize the body relative to the virtual world. But that is a mistake; the body is not in the virtual world, and we need to stabilize it relative to the physical world, gravity etc.”
Other researchers have also found gender differences in the VR experience. A study from Microsoft’s danah boyd (who chooses not to capitalize her name) also found that there’s a difference in how men and women experience the various methods VR producers use to suggest distance. Motion parallax, which uses perspective to suggest distance, is processed far better by men than women; shape-from-shading, which uses light to alter the way you perceive objects, is processed better by women. Most systems use motion parallax—mostly because it’s easier to program—despite the fact it can make the VR experience far less pleasurable or immersive for women.
Setting aside Vice’s focus on pornography, I found the suggested rationales for why VR’s unpleasant effects are unequally experienced along gender lines fascinating. Developers should be striving to increase equality in their development studios, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because not doing so could inhibit the adoption of VR applications as a result of insufficiently diverse testing groups.