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Virtual reality affects men and women differently (zephoria.org)
137 points by killwhitey on Apr 6, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 103 comments

An advisor for a startup where I used to work at worked heavily with VR systems in the 80s/90s. I was having coffee with her a year or so ago, when I had just received my devkit, and she was up in arms about how terrible motion sickness was on the Rift.

"I was telling companies back then that their VR tech was doomed from the start because of nausea, and it hasn't changed at all!"

This is a good tale of why having a more balanced gender ratio in the tech industry is important. If 90% of Oculus designers/prototypers/engineers are male, female voices will naturally get drowned. The problem is that if your audience is potentially "all humans", the ratio is 50/50. (although here, it seems like a) there exists prior research in the literature and b) good user testing could highlight that problem. If you're aspiring to doing any form of quality R&D, being on top of those 2 things should be a priority)

As for the title, I initially disliked it, but as I read the article I changed my opinion - I find it perfectly correct and just the right dose of irreverentious. The way I interpret it is as follows: it would be correct to label a poison which systematically kills any man who drinks it but not women as "sexist". The problem is that our culture tends to bundle intent with sexism, which is not the case - whether a process is sexist or not is completely independent from intent, or even whether there is a sentient agent behind it.

Thank you for the highly substantive comment. I changed the title to be less provocative because, even though both you and the author make a reasonable case for it, I fear that it's too much for the thread to bear. Too many comments are about the title as it is—but at least we're doing ok on civility!

Thank you; while in an ideal world people would apply the principle of charity reflexively, the technology scene is occupied by too many men willing to do exactly the opposite for anything women write about sex and gender

As a man with a marginally popular blog and what I'm told is an extremely masculine writing style, I can assure you that virtually no one applies the principle of charity.

For example, consider this post I wrote criticizing my third favorite language: http://www.chrisstucchio.com/blog/2013/why_not_python.html https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5986158

Then go read the top comments either on the blog or HN. The top python geeks (read: core numpy contributors) in the thread had no dispute with me, yet there was a lot of clueless disagreement suggesting I never heard of multiprocessing/zeromq/twisted/etc. The entire point of the post is that multiprocessing+whatever is fundamentally slower/uses more memory/has worse cache locality than shared memory+threads.

People don't read. They don't apply the principle of charity. They don't follow your links to verify things. This is not a gendered problem.

(If you look for popular posts on my blog you can find lots of other examples, I'm just sticking to a purely technical topic.)

Virtually no one applies the principle of charity

On Hacker News, though, we definitely should.

It's not a binary; more people apply the principle of charity more often in certain situations than others. It is not mutually exclusive that a certain amount of people don't apply the principle of charity in situations where they feel things about programming and Python specifically, and that a certain amount of men feel things about gender and don't apply it. I feel that "things women write" in my above comment probably should have been "things people write" but otherwise I still see the problem as reflexive rejection by men of tech-and-sex/gender pieces as "oh boy another feminist telling me I'm evil" instead of more rational "I'm not a woman so I should listen to what women have to say about sex/gender in tech even if it turns out I disagree."

I think men in the industry would be more willing to default to your more rational, and also more charitable, approach, had they not so much experience of feminists telling them they are evil. After a while, anyone will get gun-shy.

Exaggeratio ad absurdum is the besetting vice of identity politics. Nuance ceases to matter, and then to exist, because everyone involved comes to feel that his existence as a human being is on the line. For those who make such belief their bread and butter, that's great! For everyone else, it gets hard to take after a while.

Hm. When I made up a quote for the hypothetical man I was not actually trying to posit that this man's encounters (as representative of the tech/programming everyman's) with feminists consisted of him being told that he is evil. I actually value what feminists write, something that you didn't seem to pick up (not that I explicitly put it down).

Also you characterize my second "approach" as "charitable". This is interesting; spending time listening to women is apparently charity, with "oh boy another feminist move along" as the "[less][!] rational" baseline.


You misinterpret the word "charitable".

I used "charitable" as shorthand for "in accord with the principle of charity", and did not consider the possibilities for misinterpretation thus created. I think it reasonable to hope that the principle applies nonetheless.

I similarly used "evil" in somewhat less than the strictly literal sense; while I understand that someone very familiar with feminist theory may not apply a label like "sexist" with pejorative intent, both trivial surmise and empirical evidence indicate that someone without such familiarity is likely to react defensively when the label is applied to him, because whether it's meant pejoratively or not, it comes across as though it were. Simple pragmatism suggests that the use of the label, as a means of convincing people they should modify their behavior, is counterproductive -- but this, of course, is a tone argument, and therefore verboten.

As you, I also find much value in feminist discourse, which offers suggestions whose adoption would, I think, considerably improve not only our industry, but our society at large. Unfortunately, feminist activists generally have the least facile grasp of tactics for social change of any such movement I've ever seen, studied, read about, or heard of -- if your audience think you're browbeating them, you're browbeating them, and browbeating people is generally not an effective method of convincing them of the rightness of your cause. (I know, I know -- another prohibited tone argument. In my defense I can offer only the axiom that whether or not something rightly should be true has never been demonstrated to have a discernible effect on whether or not it is.)

Of course, when persuasion fails, there's always Alinsky's method: organize to secure power, and use that power to impose punitive sanctions on those who fail to conform. Modern feminist activism seems to me to include an increasing number of people who would happily follow precisely that program -- but who, thus far, have been hamstrung both by their general tactical clumsiness and by their earnestness, an insurmountable obstacle to power in a political system so thoroughly corrupt as that of the United States. Perhaps that'll change, and perhaps it won't; either way, I will not, indeed in good conscience cannot, ally myself with a movement willing to countenance the use of such methods, however fervently I agree with its goals.

Update: You seem to take issue with the continuum of rationality I define in my prior comment; am I right in surmising that, where I use "more rational" and "less rational", you would instead use "rational" and "irrational"? If so, I respond thus: I'm all in favor of extending someone the benefit of the doubt, but when sooner or later it becomes apparent that only one side of the conversation is actually trying to have a conversation, doubt can no longer fairly be said to exist.

This is interesting. The article was extremely insightful regarding research into where the problems were and what needed more research.

> The problem is that if your audience is potentially "all humans", the ratio is 50/50.

This is true but the question is not so much whether certain roles are primarily male or female but whether you have just enough of both and a lot of participation on various ways from both.

I.e. if your engineering team is 90% male but your testing team is 90% female I don't think you are going to have a feedback problem.....

Regarding intent and labels like "sexist" (or "racist" etc). I think you are right on. I think we do this because it allows an assignment of personal responsibility, while if we accept that intent is really not that relevant, then we have to accept that we all have a hand to play in problems.

>The way I interpret it is as follows: it would be correct to label a poison which systematically kills any man who drinks it but not women as "sexist". The problem is that our culture tends to bundle intent with sexism, which is not the case

I completely disagree here. Intent is paramount--the concept of sexism, or any -ism/-ist, requires agency on the part of the actor. An unthinking process can no more be sexist as it can be a philanthropist. The ist/ism term describes a framework of thinking that informs behavior. Now that isn't to say that abstract things cannot be sexist, as institutions can be sexist. But they are created/sustained by individuals with agency, and so an application of that term is really an indictment on those individuals within the institution.

>The problem is that if your audience is potentially "all humans", the ratio is 50/50.

True, however my guess is that real user data would not be anywhere close to that, at best 80/20. So in that case, do you design for the larger percentage? There is probably a way to make it so it works for both genders.

I think it's a great example of why having diversity in your development process is useful.

It would be nice if the article under discussion had anything to do with the technology that goes into the Rift, but, as I detail elsewhere in this thread and in an as-yet-unmoderated comment on boyd's blog, it appears to be based on research done in 2000 and not updated to account for differences in 3D rendering between then and now, e.g. the modern ubiquity of normal mapping, whose absence is called out as a problem in the 2000 paper on which the article is based. The article nowhere states that any of its content has basis in research carried out with modern rendering/VR technology, but the implication is so skilfully done that I'm finding it very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the article is deliberately deceptive for the sake of firing up controversy.

This was flagged by users. On the other hand, the article is clearly substantive. As an experiment, I'm going to provisionally override the flags. The thread hasn't degenerated into a flamewar so far; let's see if we can keep it that way.

All: please take extra care to make your comments high in substance and civility, and as low as possible in flammability.

I imagine it's the title of the article, which doesn't reflect the sex-linkage of depth perception discussed in the article, and instead implies malicious intent of Oculus.

The title makes me feel like the author is trying to linkbait.

She clearly is. But I find it forgivable, since the article is actually fairly interesting.

And unlike most people who use the term "sexism", she actually carefully defines her terms. If a normal person says "a pullup bar is sexist", we'd think they are crazy, since we'd be find the moral judgements that person is making to be nonsensical. But because we know her definition, we can simply acknowledge "by your unusual definition a pullup bar is sexist".

She has helpfully enabled us to avoid falling into this trap: http://lesswrong.com/lw/np/disputing_definitions/

I think it depends on the context of content. If the article were actual research then having contextual terminology is acceptable. However, when the article is read by a general audience then the contextual terminology should be simplified.

The title is very clickbaity, and the author admits as much. I would have flagged it as yet another silly piece, but I clicked and saw the author's name. I'm disappointed she'd drop to a cheap title, and I disagree with the premise that it is sexist. At least for any useful definition of sexist. The way she paints it is like that person that claimed her phone was sexist because it was too big for her to easily take a picture with.

However, there is actually substance there, silly "provocative" title aside.

The content of the article is reasonable. Men and women have different biological tendencies and that is likely not the first thing to pop up in a device designer's mind (if at all).

Exploring the reasons as to why some people suffer more severely from simulator sickness than others is very interesting and relevant.

It would be great to see more research into this problem but I really don't see the need to push the sexism angle.

I am curious if the users who flagged this have a lot of karma, or if they clicked through or spent an appreciable amount of time before clicking a different HN link.

I can't imagine anyone who actually read this article flagging it. And I doubt the hypothesis that it was wise users trying to avoid a flame war. Occam's razor - seems more like a knee-jerk reaction to the word sexist in the title.

To be honest when I read the title I kind of thought "okay, that'll be some bullshit". But it's actually just a really well written and interesting article with a silly/sensationalist title.

I always reserve space in my mental model of "people" for the ones who will downvote/flag something that is clearly true, they cannot disprove, and they may even acknowledge is true. Simply because they don't like it/it engenders cognitive dissonance.

Simple example; smoker downvotes article "Smoking proven to cause toenail fungus". He knows smoking is bad for him, and he doesn't think the article is wrong. He just wishes it wasn't so. He doesn't want to think about it.

Point taken. I deleted the hypothesis, which was extraneous anyway. It's not obvious to me which interpretation Occam would favour, though. HN has many fair-minded users.

What's the distinction you're drawing there? I flag most articles that contain the word "sexist" in the title because I know such articles usually cause a flame war.

I read the article, and I would certainly flag it. The article is clear to focus on hormones and biological factors, while most modern theories treat gender as a social construct, explicitly disconnected from actual biological factors.

So the mention here is adding no value at best, at worst it uses the term in a way that no longer matches up with the research around it.

(Not to mention that Oculus is actively working to reduce the factors that cause sickness (the one discussed here certainly isn't the only one))

edit: might the downvotes explain themselves? Surely it is known that terms and concepts don't have inherent, godgiven meaning and are at all times to be interpreted in the context they are used and the interpretations ascribed to them.

I didn't downvote you, but I don't think you made a convincing case for flagging this article.

Moreover, there's an entire disclaimer section in the OP that addresses this.

> 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.

Gender is a social construction. Sex dimorphism on the other hand is a real phenomenon that allows humans (as well as other mammals) to reproduce and evolve over time. The essay "Doing Gender" by Zimmerman and West is a good place to start.

Everyone agrees on this except for the dubious Queer Theory camp, and maybe a few surgeons making money off of sex transition surgery.

I'm trying to understand here- are you basically arguing that the use of "man" and "woman" is woefully inaccurate, and had "male" and "female" been used instead, you'd have been onboard?

Because that sounds pretty damn nitpicky to me.

The original title: "Is the Oculus Rift Sexist?"

To the GP: Which word(s) should be used to describe differences in people due to hormones and biological factors?

Using that particular word in the title does seem a bit keen on generating controversy, but the ideas presented are interesting and I don't think the article should be flagged.

To the author: If we agree that systems and institutions often include these biases and might be correctly described as "sexist" then what can or should be done in this particular case? It is probably possible to develop better technology which handles all the factors involved in 3D vision, but if for example a male researcher is testing a new VR system and he is biologically predisposed to notice/optimize for certain factors, is it unreasonable to expect that the finished product will work better for men than women on average?

And is that not a good reason for more women to develop or help develop these technologies?

People who have the chromosomes that correspond to the uterus and other related reproductive parts should be described as "female" people. People who have the chromosomes that correspond to the testes and other related reproductive parts should be described as "male" people. People who have chromosomes and reproductive parts that don't match classic sex dimorphic binary (the thing that allows humans and other mammals to breed and evolve over time) are called "intersex" by the medical community.

Queer Theorists have somewhat popularized the edgy notion that the above knowledge is socially constructed (read: in people's heads as a collective cultural meme) because, well, it sounds nice. A trend called Queer Politics takes this idea like a new toy and says people who use terms like "female biology" are bigoted. There is no need to cater to this temporal fashion produced in academia, a thing that does observably nothing to help gender-nonconforming people or explain the social forces that cause marginalization and violence against them.

[Preface: dang, thanks for overriding the flags on this HN posting. The discussion thus far seems to be mostly worthwhile, unless it's gone to hell in the twenty minutes or so I've just spent writing this comment, and I'm glad to see it taking place here.]

boyd's baccalaureate thesis, of which her blog post appears to be a recapitulation for a general audience, dates from 2000 and spends considerable effort talking about how, for example, the lack of normal maps results in a lack of shape-from-shading cues, which makes it difficult for a visual system prioritizing those cues over parallax cues to develop a 3-space representation of a scene.

And that's fair enough! For 2000. Now, though, a decade and a half later, normal maps are ubiquitous in current-gen and next-gen 3D graphics; while it's more computationally expensive to render with them than without them, the Rift's resolution is only 1280x800 overall, and even with the added overhead of parallax calculation, that's still easily within the capabilities of a modern GPU.

This is the sort of thing one might expect to be addressed in boyd's discussion of her earlier research. That said, having once read the thesis and then gone back to review the blog post, it's quite plainly a simple restatement of circa-2000 conclusions, and bears no trace of having been updated in light of the enormous advances in graphical rendering technology which have taken place between then and now.

I don't know whether there is any evidence of women having trouble with Rift-induced simulator sickness at higher rates than men. Going by boyd's blog post, I can't know, because she doesn't bother to mention whether there is or there isn't; she just rehashes her earlier research and hangs "Oculus" and "sexist" off it as search keywords.

This would be disappointing in general from someone reputed as highly as danah boyd; much worse, though, it hamstrings her entire point! Her basic thesis, in this blog post, is "This is a discussion we need to be having." But there's no knowing whether that's true, because in comparison with modern rendering technology, the research on which she bases that statement is hopelessly outdated, and she presents no evidence to suggest that people who rely on shading cues have the same problems with today's VR technology as with that of fifteen years ago.

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.”

Is it just me, or is this kind of OK?

Intentional discrimination isn't, of course. But if your initial release accidentally isn't accessible to people with blue-yellow colorblindness, is that a tragedy of social justice?

No product serves every person equally, and this is especially true early in the product's (or company's) lifetime. You're a little too busy tackling the core problem to have time for fixing every accessibility problem in rev A.

Which seems OK to me. Rev A's are by nature lacking & incomplete, and I would rather they get something out the door, make a profit, and decide to make a rev B- than miss the boat and/or go bankrupt trying to make the product equally accessible all from day 1.

There are plenty of products like that, that I have been unable to enjoy in their early stages, so it isn't like getting the short end of the stick has never happened to me. One of my favorite outdoor gear companies, for example, has started making technical clothing. They don't offer sizes that fit tall, slender me, so I'm pretty much hosed for now. But that's fine. They'll get to it eventually.

(Obviously in this particular case wrt. Oculus Rift & women, the point has now been raised and women are half the globe, so it would seem to be a high priority to address. I'm just addressing the quoted statement, which was much more general)

> Is it just me, or is this kind of OK?

For some values of "kind of." I would even go so far as to say on a practical matter it may be worse than intentional discrimination.

Look, the problem is really one of intent and how well something matches intent. If you want a combat flight simulator that you are marketing primarily to young men, that's not necessarily a problem. If young women are less interested in your product, you need to serve those who are going to actually buy it.

But this works the other way too. If your target market is "everybody" then inducing motion sickness in 52% of your target demographic is not "ok" from a marketing perspective anymore than inducing seizures in the photosensitive would be. You don't want possible customers to get sick from your product. So on that level it isn't "kind of" ok.

This is an area where I actually think the less intentional discrimination, the more problematic it becomes.

Yes, it's clearly a big problem from a business/marketing/profits standpoint. No question there, and I am 100% confident it will be addressed for exactly that reason. I'm just talking about socially, is this something we would want to get Very Pissed Off About and break out our torches & pitchforks.

> is this something we would want to get Very Pissed Off About and break out our torches & pitchforks.

No disagreement. But again I am not sure that all defining target market as young men ages 18 to 25 is necessarily problematic either. A lot of things really depend heavily on details.

Probably not a Great And Proper Tragedy of Social Justice, no. But...

It's still pretty important, right? Like, if she's right about all her preliminary biological results, and if you were Palmer Lucky, wouldn't this kind of make you super super sad? Like "oh crap, my revolution is only going to be available to boys? that is NOT WHAT I HAD IN MIND!!!" Right?

Also, what if VR ends up being as big as web browsing? In that case, it might qualify as a tragedy of social justice for an utterly important information vector to cause nausea in say 50% of bio-females.

what if VR ends up being as big as web browsing?

Then I guarantee you it would be fixed by rev B. Who wants to miss out on 51% of potential customers? I don't think you have much to worry about, market forces are definitely on the side of "getting this fixed", even if it doesn't happen tomorrow.

This article's definitions of "motion parallax" and "shape from shading" are quite different from my understanding. Can anyone shed any light on this? Specifically:

"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."

Whereas I believed "motion parallax" to be moving one's head so as to compare an object's displacement against a more distant background. Size is irrelevant.

"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."

"Shape from shading" I believed to be simply recreating a 3d structure from the way light falls on it, a depth cue that occurs even without motion. The quoted description seems like it is referring to specularity, which does play a role in shape from shading, but also seems well handled by (many) rendering engines.

My understanding of both of those terms agrees with yours.

I think in the case of "motion parallax" it's nearly the same, though.... whether you're "moving your head" or "moving the object", in both cases the spatial relation of three things is changing: your Center of Projection, and two other things (e.g. the two sides of a soda can, or e.g. a cloud and the moon).

Now that I found someone to discuss the nerditude of detailed depth cues... why on earth would eye-flickering change the shading? Am I supposed to believe that it's because the CoP moves (because my pupil moves)? I find it implausible that moving the CoP one millimeter, on an object that's 100mm to 10000mm from the CoP, while also changing which center-surround is processing the photons from a point, can detect a difference in shading, even on highly highly specular surfaces. Can anyone explain this to me?

Actually, as far as I've read, the minor eye movements happen exactly to enable motion parallax (on the very edges of objects) even while the object is static relating to you - so it's kind of completely opposite what the original article was proposing.

That seems right. It's conceivable that microsaccades could be affected by diffraction effects in unusual situations. But it seems like shading (even specular highlights) couldn't be perceptibly affected.

I think she is mixing up:

1. Shading. 2. Motion parallax. When you move your head, objects in the foreground move more. 3. Microsaccades. If your eye points perfectly steady, your retina adapts to the constant stimulus and the image disappears. So your eye moves slightly, all the time.

It's a microscopic sample size, but with the OR developer kit I got to play with, probably half women I know who tried it felt motion sick; the proportion was much much lower for men (maybe 1/10).

At the time I simply put it down to the guys having played more FPS games and being more accustomed to it, but its interesting to read this.

On the other hand, with the precise head tracking in OR, I wonder if a higher-resolution with a better lighting model would make this issue go away?

It's basically just tiny head movements, right? As you move you see minor shading differences in the scene, and use that to mentally reconstruct the 3D geometry (as I understand it from the article).

You'd think high precision head tracking with a sufficiently high frame rate would be able to catch that.

(however, the low res / poorly lit OR demos probably don't)

Does the OR account for pupillary distance? At the 5th percentile, the pupillary distance for women is 2mm smaller than men and at the 95th percentile, it's a 5mm difference. With that in mind, an OR for women may need to be designed to account for a smaller pupillary distance.

What about children? How likely are they to experience nausea? Anyone with kids and an OR dev kit have anecdotal data here?


Yes, pretty sure that's configurable.

Many games don't, though. I know the TF2 Oculus Rift integration at one point had a calibrator for that. Last I heard they were pushing for a standalone calibrator that games could all pull info from, but I don't know what came of that.

Is this calibration common between users? i.e. is it likely that a girl using an OR after a guy will calibrate the device for her pupillary distance?

It's all very interesting if true. I've always wondered why some people just seem to get nauseous so quickly when interacting in 3d environments.

In my anecdotal experience I've found adjusting things like depth-of-field of the viewport and increasing framerate to have a significant impact on simulator sickenss type effects.

It would be interesting to find what kind of minimum threshold of realistic lighting might be needed to help overcome the problem.

Ugh, I wish we didn't need such a rage-baiting title to talk about this. I'm not a huge fan of danah's methods [1], but then againit's hard to argue with her results.

danah is right that her findings are not at all conclusive. I'm somewhat doubtful that the root cause is what she suggests, but the problem itself seems to be very real. I'm quite excited to see if we can find a solution, as it may have broader-reaching effects. Could this allow people who get motion sick even from 2D presentations to enjoy them sickness-free?

[1] Labeling a company and its engineers as sexist for not being aware of certain, extremely obscure research is unfair to say the least. But, you know, institutional and implicit biases in subconscious power structures etc. etc.

Labeling a company and its engineers as sexist...

She did not do this. She assigned a label L to X and then provided an explicit definition of L. You are fallaciously taking an alternate definition of L from a different context and acting as if she used that definition.

But I suppose misunderstandings like yours are the price of cheap clickbait.

The misunderstanding was not the price of the clickbait, it was the intention. boyd does provide a very careful definition of sexism buried at the addenda to her article, but that explanation did not appear with the original article when it was published. boyd even admits this, saying that a more accurate title would have been "Is Oculus Rift unintentionally discriminating on the basis of sex?".

"Sexist" is an emotionally charged term, and when you use it out of context the reader will assume its most common meaning, not the more academically accurate one. boyd knew this and decided it was better to rile people up than let her article go unnoticed. I can't even fault her, to be honest -- I just don't like manipulative headlines (or writing in general), even when used for a justified end.

Title: Scientists have conclusively proven that abortion is murder!

<Insert article proclaiming the evils of abortion>

Footer in tiny text: *If we define murder to mean the death of a living organism

This article would be technically correct, but does it seem honest to you?

And yet in this article in The Atlantic we have a guy who discovers that people who want just ONE neighbor out of four to be the same "color" as them (everyone is red or blue) can wind up segregating entire neighborhoods.


The difference between active discrimination like "we don't need any women baby-makers working here!" and ostensibly subconscious passive discrimination like "man it sure would be nice to have a male co-worker" is gigantic. The first is reprehensible and should be fought for sure. The second is innocent and not sexist but can seemingly end up with roughly similar outcomes to the first.

Hmm. I'm at a loss to explain how hormones, in the retina of all places, would affect perceptual cues that have been built up over years and years of use and are in many ways hard coded into the many layers and blobs (yes, "blobs") of visual cortex. I certainly can't rule it out, but it seems an unlikely mechanism for me. The neural networks governing vision are a very powerful combination of nature (some blobs fire only when there are edges of a certain orientation, for instance) and nurture (motion parallax ties in closely with a physical understanding of distance, proprioception, etc). The differences have to be deeper, if you ask me. Men and women's brains are indeed different, in ways we don't fully understand (this is an understatement), but there's a lot of evidence that men have, if you will, a spaciality speciality.

I wonder if there's a whole proprioceptive feedback center that helps tally your visual input with your movements, that's fed by androgens or otherwise activated by male-dominated chemicals and structures.

However I'm also curious about controls for things like playing lots of games when younger — we're only just now starting to see female gamers approach males in proportion, and I'm not confident that near-equality is as near when you look at 5, 10, 15 year olds. Especially games like FPSes with lots of 3D movement and rectifying of a virtual space with the real one. Having grown up with the motion of gaming, I think I'm less susceptible to VR sickness. I don't have any data on this, of course, but I would be very interested to see some.

A just so story for you.

Historically male primates of the genus homo have been hunters, often operating on terrain with features at various depths passed through on the go. To construct an accurate representation of the the natural world and the relative distances of objects it would thus be beneficial for the male retina to spend more resources processing depth cues that arise from motion parallax compared to women for who survival may not have depended on being able to accurately discern distances of game moving through brush.

This story is just that, a story. But the biology underlying sexual dimorphism of the visual system is definitely real and the fact that a sex hormone is involved may not be surprising since if, for example, an androgen receptor is expressed in a certain cell type in the retina and that cell type is in the circuit for parallax depth perception and that receptor enhances the response to differential parallax by say, depolarizing that specific cell type, then only males will have that enhancement.

Doesn't seem very surprising. It's a common assertion that males are better with spatial tasks in order to make them better at hunting while women are better at color detection to make them better at gathering and identifying things like ripe fruit when gathering. It's pretty common to see certain animals that have very little color capability, but good motion detection. This is just a hormonal switch for that, which makes sense, if genders were once indicative of roles. It doesn't seem to far off from visual input to encourage shade detection vs. motion detection.

The article is definitively thought provocking. About the influence of 3D games, if women/low androgene people take different visual cues, wouldn't there be the same effect that with virtual reality?

IMO 3D games for instance are also heavy on parallax and poor on color and shadow rendering, their players would self select for being able to mainly rely on these, while other people would be mildly put off (eventually without understanding clearly what's happening, and think that they're just not into games)

>it seems an unlikely mechanism for me

I was struck by the same thought. The fact that this woman has a PhD, and has been thinking about this problem for 17 years, and still produces something like this that is so thin on substance and so saturated in rhetoric says something, which I find to be rather discouraging.

I don't understand what "[computers can't] simulate how that tiny, constant flickering of your eyes affects the shading you perceive" refers to. How can flicking your eyes affect the shading of objects?

In the linked paper[1], the shape-from-shading cue was just a static greyscale gradient, with no eye-flicking. This seems like something that standard computer graphics techniques can emulate easily.

Since the study was done in 1997, I could imagine that the environments they were working with still contained lots of flat polygons. But the modern Oculus-rift runs things like Doom III, where everything is smoothly shaded. So to me it would seem that while the CAVE might have been "sexist", the Oculus isn't anymore? (Of course, there are lots of other depth cues than shading and parallax, and there could be sex differences about how those are prioritized also, but the cited experiment did not study them.)

[1] http://www.danah.org/papers/sexvision.pdf?_ga=1.245737348.10...

The title is linkbait, which is against the guidelines, but I can't think of a better one. If any of you suggest one that's accurate and neutral, I'll change it.

The thing is, the title isn't linkbait from the perspective of modern feminist discourse and its usage of the word "sexist".

In radical feminism (the ideology that the term "feminism" most frequently refers to in contemporary usage), virtually the entirety of human interaction is viewed from the lens of the patriarchy model, the notion that society is governed by "a system of power that organizes society into a complex of relationships based on the assertion that male supremacy oppresses women" (Wikipedia). Such feminists define any act as "sexist" if it reinforces, or even if it is the product of, what they see as the patriarchy. Similarly, liberal sociologists and critical race theorists define "racism" as the characteristic of any action that results from the oppressive power the dominant group (most contiguous with the class of straight white males, at least in Western society) has over minorities. (This is why those on the far left often make statements like "there's no such thing as reverse racism/sexism." They're right based on their usage--it's just a matter of definition.)

So anyway, when feminists use the term "sexist", they're not usually using it in the colloquial sense of "you're a bad person" but rather in the sense of "you're saying or doing something that results from the patriarchal society that governed your upbringing, and it would be really good if you start questioning the assumptions that led you to this action." In fact, I've heard quite a few feminists describe an action of their own doing as "sexist" and immediately set out to unlearn whatever caused them to say or do that. If only more feminists were as open to entertaining discussion regarding alternatives to their patriarchy hypothesis, but I digress!

Having attended a very left wing liberal arts college and, therefore, being very familiar with the terminology used by sociologists, I intended the above to be explanatory rather than either an advocacy of or an attack on the leftist definition. Could some of the downvoters please explain which side they're coming from and what aspect of my post they found problematic?

I know I didn't upvote your comment because of:

> This is why those on the far left often make statements like "there's no such thing as reverse racism/sexism." They're right based on their usage--it's just a matter of definition.

Don't know enough about it but I think "there's no such thing as reverse racism" is true because it would be just... racism. Or just sexism. Actually the definition given before ("sexism is sexism by the privileged") would allow for "reverse sexism" ("sexism by the non-privileged"). So it seemed kind of inconsistent to me.

> Don't know enough about it but I think "there's no such thing as reverse racism" is true because it would be just... racism. Or just sexism. Actually the definition given before ("sexism is sexism by the privileged") would allow for "reverse sexism" ("sexism by the non-privileged"). So it seemed kind of inconsistent to me.

As I said in my original post, most feminists assert that society is a patriarchy that is fundamentally oppressive to women. They use the term "sexist" for an act that results from the patriarchy. Because their model of power dynamics does not allow for the notion of males being structurally oppressed, it is by their very definition impossible for one to be "sexist" (or "reverse sexist" as some people say) towards males.

> I know I didn't upvote your comment because of:

I'm not sure I really follow. Are you saying that (1) you disliked that I attempted to clarify that feminists use the term "sexist" differently from how a lot of us use it or that (2) I didn't do a good job in making that clarification or (3) something else entirely?

If the first or third, I don't get why. If the second, what I meant is that a lot of commenters on this thread found the title misleading. I wanted to clarify to them that there are two commonly used usages of "sexism", one in mainstream English and one in academia, especially in left wing contexts. As a linguist, I don't find value in prescribing one definition as "better" to use than another. I just wanted to point out that people were really just having a debate about definitions.

Virtual reality affects men and women differently

Done. Thanks seth1010. Open to further improvements.

Aw what was the original title I'm curious now

It was the title of the article.

Women and Men are Biologically Inclined to Experience VR Differently

Edit: Given shangxiao comment, maybe the title should have the original in brackets. Something along the lines of:

Women and Men are Biologically Inclined to Experience VR Differently (Orignal: Is the Oculus Rift sexist?)

In the defence of the original title, the wikipedia[1] entry for sexism:

Sexism or gender discrimination is prejudice or discrimination based on a person's sex or gender.

The article is 100% about a technology partly discriminating female users. The way people understand the term is tinted by the fact that 'sexism' is rarely pointed out for anything else than malicious behavior, but there is no fault in someone using a term in an more literal way than usual, putting it as linkbait doesn't do it justice.

[1] for the record, just any other resource has the same definition (i.e the Oxford dictionnary)

The title of the blog/article almost ruined the whole point trying to be made.

I read the entire article waiting for justification of a clearly provocative title. I got to the end, felt Danah Boyd didn't justify the title and felt the blog/article was weak. Only when I took a step away and thought about the it did I realize the reason I had such a bad taste in my mouth - it was the title. The article itself brings up a good point and one that should be explored by Oculus and others doing VR. I don't think anyone expected that men and women would react different to VR or the techniques we use to render VR worlds.

The article is a good read with the assumption that Oculus is not aware of these facts and is not trying to solve the problem she poses. The problem with that assumption is that nowhere in article does she mention talking to anyone at Oculus. She doesn't even mention if she has even used the Rift. For all we know Oculus could be at the forefront of this issue. We don't know because she didn't ask.

Is Nature sexist? To maintain a consistent argument, the author would have to answer yes.

Nature is many things, but fair is not one of them.

From all I know about the period, I'm pretty sure no women would pretend that nature treats men and women the same.

Sure, but lumping all gender based unfairness under the label "sexism" muddles things.

Businesses make money selling products for periods and pregnancy, because females want them, not because of any "se ism". Similarly if it's true that some people don't jive with the oculus rift, because of a biological difference, Oculus can create a different device for that market.

They certainly shouldn't be charged with "sexism" or delay releasing their product simply because it's better suited to males than females (if the authors contentions hold).

> 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.

I need help understanding the mechanics here.

What exactly is the flicker described? What does it have to do with shading being recalculated? If hypothetically our eyes did not flicker, how would that affect our depth perception?

As a follow up - what would be involved in emulating this in a virtual system?

The flickers are called saccades. [1]

It's not clear to me how, in the absence of head movement, eye movement alone would account for perceiving shading differences.


[Edit: Removed discussion not relevant to parent's question for reposting as a top-level comment.]

I've been assuming that this bit about "eye flickers" is boyd's way of describing for a general audience the phenomenon of optical saccades, which are automatic and very fast eyeball twitches which allow the brain to gather enough information to construct a visual scene through an eyeball with a (usually) very narrow area of focus.

I'm not sure how that affects shape-from-shading, though, because saccades are movements of the eyeballs only, not of the head. Saccades therefore don't affect angles of reflection or refraction, which would seem to make it impossible for them to change the shading of a given scene.

The fact is that for VR to be accurate, we'd have to do very fast tracking of the eye movement and even the change of the focus of the eye. Both are certainly used by our brains to unconsciously calculate the distance of an object. Both can happen independently of our head movements.

I can easily recognize that such adjustments of the picture aren't present in immersive 3D projections. Add to that that we males are much less aware of the incorrectness of the shades, it's easy for me to imagine that women have bigger problems under given conditions.

This doesn't sound like the Oculus is sexist, so much as that men are more predisposed to experience the 3D effect biologically. How is that sexist?

Sexism as in discriminatory based on sex in some manner, not necessarily intentionally or maliciously discriminatory. That is defined in the article itself, by the way, so there isn’t really much to add here. Maybe I can help make the point more explicit.

The hypothesis is that VR tech uses depth cues that work better for one sex (seems the more appropriate term than gender in this case) than the other. This would make the tech discriminatory, hence sexist as defined in the article.

The important part is that sexism as defined in the article does not ascribe intent or maliciousness to those who made the tech. It does not accuse those who made the tech of being intentionally or maliciously sexist, it just describes the tech as sexist. The author even makes it explicit that in her opinion there is no intention at all to be sexist by those who made the tech, no intention to make the tech work worse for women.

Now, some people who use the world sexist mean to strongly imply intention and many people who read it understand it as assigning blame. However, that is not necessarily how all people use the word. I certainly don’t use it that way and I know many other people who don’t. These two uses of the word – one ascribing intention, one not – is potentially confusing, so it’s good that she explicitly defined the word in her article and explicitly excludes intent from the definition.

You could argue that this is a very exotic use of the word. I can’t speak to how common the different uses are, but I do know that for many people it has long been important to divorce intent from effect because in many ways the effect is the only thing that matters.

The author addresses this in the section "Response to Criticism".

The title is silly - but it means that when testing 3D applications (and even more so VR), it might be dangerous to only test it on males since that can lead to equipment that is not suitable for women. So depending on how much work the Oculus guys are putting into making it "usable for people of both genders" vs. "testing it with male participants only/mostly", the product might be excluding women. And thus be sexist. The title is clearly link bait, the article and its implications pretty interesting though (imo).

From the article:

>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.

Unless I'm interpreting this wrong, I think what she's getting it is that VR research is inadvertently sexist because it is primarily done by men, for men. If the motion-sickness issue she describes really is prevalent among women, you'd expect it to be addressed by VR technology.

Reading this article I'm not convinced this is the fault of the Rift. Motion parallax happens naturally when a game engine uses two cameras to render a scene (the 3D effect). Shape-from-shading is dependent on the lighting system the engine uses, and because developers haven't needed to program for VR they've never implemented it.

There are many changes in both game design and engine features that we'll start to see as virtual reality becomes mainstream. It's very likely we'll see a stall in graphics improvements as game engine programmers begin to enhance other systems like physics and lighting to work more realistically.

I initially agreed. It really depends on how this purported shape-from-shading-due-to-eye-flickering thing works. I don't at all understand danah's claims about how eye flickering gives you extra data, and my first-principles impulse is to say it sounds implausible to me... but supposing she's right, depending on what she means, maybe eye trackers would be required to produce proper depth cues. In which case it's a hardware problem too (though of course the game engines would also be required to support it, blah blah).

Normal mapping provides exactly the sort of shape-from-shading cue boyd describes. Stereopsis isn't required for normal mapping to be beneficial; indeed, in the fifteen years since boyd did the work she summarizes in her article, normal mapping has become ubiquitous among 3D engines which purport to render a realistic result.

With her definition of sexist a bra, a urinal or anything that is only usable by one gender is sexist.

Interesting data, strange conclusion.

> 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.

While parallax does play a part in perception of size and distance, we still perceive the size of objects without stereoscopy (that is, with one eye closed, or on a flat image). When shown an upclose photo of a can, people can figure out it didn't just grew because 1) we have previous knowledge of the shape and size of a can and 2) it's image gets distorted as it gets closer [1].

You can trick someone by making an object with an unfamiliar shape to look familiar when viewed with the right angle / FOV [2]. Similarly, making miniatures appear realistically-sized in photos involves careful FOV control to not trigger the signals in our perception [3].

This is a mechanism that, I think, would be interesting to study w.r.t. gender differences, more than rotating 3D objects.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perspective_distortion_(photogr...

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forced_perspective#Forced_persp...

[3] http://petapixel.com/2013/10/14/life-like-miniature-scenes-s...

lousy title, but fascinating piece of research. please do go back and read it if you skipped it due to the title.

So would having separate male and female versions of the Oculus be considered more sexist or less sexist? No snark intended.

The article isn't really referring to the Oculus Rift in particular, so much as the gender-linked nature of depth perception. That's an underlying technological issue, and not something you can fix by dropping a few grams and giving it a paint job.

It's a bit of a linkbait title, because it's quite misleading in that it suggests (especially to the large fraction of people who read the title without opening the article) that Oculus is engaging in some institutional gender-discriminatory behavior (an amusing perhaps autoantonym is that an equivalent title might be "Women don't use Oculus Rift, but it's not sexist!").

Just as easily, the title could have been "Is Avatar sexist?" (I'm actually really curious if 3D movies also induce nausea that differs in rate along sex/hormonal lines, and I would have expected, given its mass-market nature).

From a pretty shallow search, I found http://www.pacificu.edu/vpi/publications/documents/OVS.3DVie... which claims that there isn't a link between gender and anything (nausea, dizziness, disorientation, blurring were all found to not correlate) except for "involvement in the movie".

Seems to me that if you fix the "shape from shading" issue (for any VR system) everybody's depth perception experience improves. If it's really related to hormones it would make sense that some men have a harder time with these cues than others just like woman would since not all men have the same hormone levels either.

CAVEs make me nauseous too, I'm a dude and I used to help build them

Being a man and an oculus tinkerer. How would I go about testing this?

the whole thing is: in her preliminary study, people with more male-hormones (layman term) identify depth by shapes in motion. people with less (or female-hormones, again, very layman terms) get sick when there is no light hinting on that 3d body movement.

You don't even need an oculus to test the hypothesis. it can probably be tested by:

- showing that spinning woman shadow that everyone sees spinning to a different direction, see if women get sick/annoyed/react in any manner faster than men. or;

- put lots of people in a room with a hanging light as the only light source, kick that light in a large pendulum movement. check if the women get sick faster than the men.

The spinning woman mentioned above: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinning_Dancer

I used to work for a company that did simulated driving tests. When looking at the class reviews, more women than men would complain of SAS (simulator adjustment syndrome). I can also say that I get the same problem if I play video games too long or if the lighting is wrong (game and/or room). I know it's anecdotal, but after reading hundreds of class reviews it's interesting to see some science behind it.

I'm no scientist, but off the top of my head, I'd say you would start by finding a group of women who experience simulator sickness with the Rift, and a given simulation, at a significantly higher rate than do men. Then you'd want to modify the simulation, e.g. by adding normal mapping to offer the shading cues boyd discusses, and see whether and how the incidence of simulator sickness changes.

Pretty cool article / research. I kind of wish the author hadn't intentionally brought sexism into it because I think the research is interesting enough on its own and it just distracts from the actual information. She does address this a bit at the end though.

The words Oculus Rift sound like a sexually transmitted disease, so who knows?

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