Five years after penetrating the mass market, the cybersickness caused by VAMR systems shows how gender inequality is hindering the advancement of technology

In 1962, Norton Heilig invented the first ever device for augmented reality, called Sensorama. This large mechanical device would support what he defined as Experience Cinema by stimulating the entire sensory system of the spectator. By placing their face inside of a conical visual device, the spectator would be offered a three-dimensional viewing of the film that was being reproduced, together with smells, vibrations and stereophonic audio, to create the most immersive viewing experience.

Heilig likely had no idea that the invention he had introduced was bound to become an obsession in technological spheres. In the decades that followed, mankind put its intuition and imagination to the test, attempting to solve apparently insurmountable conundrums with the goal of peering into a new reality – a virtual reality. Prototype after prototype, human-machine interaction became increasingly streamlined, owing to refined algorithmic techniques, such as those of machine-learning.

Nowadays, the umbrella term VAMR systems encompasses countless hardware and software technologies belonging to augmented, virtual and mixed reality. Indeed, mankind tried in all possible ways to find something that could go beyond the naturally available material reality. Technologies that could provide new worlds, or at least reinvent everyday life. All of this, by adapting to men’s sensory system to make the transition from physical to virtual barely perceptible.

From the app that helps you plan the furniture in your new house, to combat videogames with a headset and controllers. But it doesn’t end there. Virtual reality also finds application in the medical area, from cognitive and motor rehabilitation, to the treatment of anxiety disorders, unhealthy eating habits and severe obesity.

In the paragraphs above, the word ‘man’ has been repeated and underlined intentionally. For women, the story is quite different. Especially in the case of virtual reality headsets.

Let us go in order.

Cybersickness: what is it?

For decades, VAMR systems remained both extremely expensive, and exclusive to areas such as automotive design, medicine or astronautics. This changed when the first large-scale commercialisation of VR headsets began in 2016, in a multi-brand productive frenzy. With the development and the mass adoption of such headsets, a phenomenon emerged quite consistently. Defined as cybersickness, this term comprises a series of symptoms caused by the use of VR headset. From nausea and headache, to ataxia (loss of motor coordination) and more general disorientation, cybersickness manifests itself in ways that are very similar to carsickness or seasickness.

What causes cybersickness?

As argued by Mario Brion and Fernando Pumudu in this academic paper, there is no precise answer to this question. Or rather, there’s no univocal explanation: the countless studies and experiments conducted in time have originated quite a kaleidoscopic interpretation of the phenomenon.

For some, it is a problem of balance. The immersive experience offered by the headset may confuse our sense of direction and movement, therefore encouraging us to modify our posture to compensate for angular changes. The dissonance is amplified by the asynchrony between the movement of our head or body and the visual changes inside the headset. Such a delay in the adaptation of the virtual universe to our movements is only a few milliseconds long, but several studies have confirmed it to be the catalyst of cybersickness.

For others, such sensorial incongruences (we’re sitting on the sofa, but the headset tells us we’re speeding on a rollercoaster, for example) might be interpreted by our body as poisoning symptoms. Hence the triggering of defensive physiological reactions aimed at emptying our stomachs, which are at the origin of the nausea and the general discomfort felt while we are using the device.

Sensory conflict: feeling discombobulated

One of the most agreed-upon theories and also perhaps the most justifiable, is that of the sensory conflict. In particular, the use of VAMR devices might generate a discord between visual and vestibular stimuli. The vestibule is the component of the inner ear that allows the brain to determine the position and movement of our head in space. It functions as an internal compass, translating gravity into electrical impulses and allowing us to keep our balance. The vestibule and the eye are in constant collaboration in the interpretation of our movements, and such a cooperation is as necessary as ever. People with hearing disabilities, for instance, struggle more in learning to ride a bike. At the same time, balancing ourselves on one foot becomes a more complex task if we close our eyes. While using VR headsets, the inputs that our eyes send to our brain clash with the signals transmitted by the vestibule. Such discrepancies discombobulate us, causing symptoms that are in all ways like those of carsickness or seasickness.

Women are more affected than men

Dry eyes and/or mouth, fatigue, nausea, headache, excessive sweating, lack of coordination eye-hand, ataxia, vertigo, lack of orientation. Have you ever felt any such symptoms while using VAMR devices? You are then part of the 80% of users that, in one way or another, suffer from cybersickness.

Most probably, you are also a woman.

From the ’90s on, a variety of experiments and research confirmed that cybersickness is a more frequent event for female user, than for male ones. Once again, the hypotheses on the causes of such a disparity are extremely differentiated.

One interpretive trend finds the causes of it in the differences in body structure (and its proportions) between men and women. Women tend to be more minute than men and, at similar heights, women’s feet are generally smaller than men’s. Consequently, women have less stability and are more prone to cybersickness symptoms, under the same conditions.

Otherwise, the cause of such discrepancy might be found in different perceptive abilities: the brain and the senses of a woman are more efficient in perceiving environmental changes and sensorial dissonances. Consequently, the alert state and/or the discombobulation manifest themselves more heavily in the case of women. The danger is perceived more acutely, therefore generating a more severe physiological response.

On the other hand, according to this study, women suffer more from cybersickness because of a reduced physical compatibility with the parameters used in the design of VAMR headsets and devices. To better understand this interpretation, we need to focus on two precise parameters. The fist one is the IPD or interpupillary distance, that is, the distance between the centre of the left pupil and the centre of the right pupil of the user’s eyes. The second parameter is the interocular distance or IOD, the distance between the two optical centres (right and left) of the two lenses installed on the headset. Generally speaking, women tend to have a lower IPD than men, which causes more difficulties in adapting to the IOD of the headset that is being used.

This incongruence between the two measurements may impede a correct perception of perspectives in the environment that is being observed through the headset, therefore causing a greater lack of orientation during use.

Even if many modern VAMR devices have and adjustable IOD, the problem is not entirely solved. The lenses still have standard dimensions and specific optical-geometrical parameters that make it impossible to adapt to certain IPD values. This, for female users, keeps causing prismatic distortions and consequently triggers the physiological responses explained in the previous paragraphs. Furthermore, symptoms might worsen due to an additional neurological stress, caused by the amount of extra work that the brain needs to do as to interpret out-of-focus or distorted images. The problem is then at the hardware level, dependent on the physical characteristics and the measurements of the devices.

Cybersickenss in women: let’s talk about it in sustainable terms

If the article was to end here, the conclusion would be that women suffer more often from cybersickness and to a greater extent because they are women. Or because that is just the way it is. A tautological answer that blames the victim and ends the conversation, discouraging general interest towards the topic.

A useless answer for those that are truly interested in innovation. Inclusivity is one of the most relevant themes around which technological advancement is being developed, especially in the last few years. To repel or diminish the issue, then, means to adopt a discriminatory perspective that is counterproductive and not up to date.

The key is to look for an across-the-board interpretation. The beauty of technology in the 21st century is that it can evolve and potentially adapt to every new discovery or idea. Knowing how to think, preferably in a lateral fashion, should be enough. That way, the problem is not caused by women being women, but is instead a question of social sustainability. Let’s think about the gender bias that has always affected the technological and the IT areas. Let’s think about the term ‘engineer’ or ‘computer scientist’. What stereotypical image pops into our head? Probably, that of a white, male adult.

The same white, male adult that develops algorithms and tries on himself, on his eyes, the efficacy of the VAMR prototypes. The same white, male adult that decides that the product is ready to be launched on the market when he does not experience any cybersickness symptoms during the testing phase. A story, this one, that went on for decades: Paolo Costa explained it well, in his speech at the conference “Gender equality and new technologies”, last May at the University of Pavia. As long as the IT and engineering sections of any company will be dominated by such a stereotypically male presence, then, technology will keep being female-unfriendly.

What is the solution then? When talking about such complicated issues, the solution is not at all easy and immediate. What we need is a cultural change in the involved players and in society at large. We need to bring women inside the algorithms, both as a variable to be considered, and as the brains behind the development of software and hardware. If we keep facing technology from a certain perspective, we will keep creating products that seem perfect at their testing stage, but that promote exclusion once they’re launched on the market.

We should seek a change that will rescue us from such a mono-perspective ignorance, using diversification to become brilliant innovators and make a better reality, both material and virtual.

In Spindox, we have already put ourselves to work. But since we like suspense, we have decided that this is another story of which we will talk about another time.

Stay tuned.