RENO, NV — Virtual reality has the potential to become a mainstream technology, but it’s not a level playing field for men and women. An interdisciplinary research team at the University of Nevada, Reno aims to make VR more accessible to women. VR sickness, which can include symptoms like nausea, drowsiness and disorientation, is still considered a major barrier to the mass market success of virtual reality.
“There is growing evidence that women are more likely to experience VR sickness, which could explain low adoption rate of VR technology among females,” Eelke Folmer, a computer science associate professor in the University’s College of Engineering, says.
Folmer and his colleague Paul MacNeilage, a neuroscientist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, have been teaching an interdisciplinary course in virtual reality since 2017.
“We noticed that some female students experienced VR sickness more than male students – we need to investigate this more to see what is happening from a neuroscience perspective,” Folmer says.
Folmer, MacNeilage and their colleague Lars Strother of the psychology department, won a highly competitive Google Research Award for their proposal, "Understanding Gender Differences in Visual/Vestibular Conflict during Virtual Locomotion” to fund this work.
Folmer oversees the technology part of the project, the gear and the software, while MacNeilage and Strother handles the theory and the neuroscience. MacNeilage studies vestibular perception – the system that coordinates the sense of balance and spatial orientation, and runs the University’s Self-Motion Lab.
Motion sickness, of which VR sickness is a subset, is generally caused by a conflict between visual and vestibular systems, which normally are in sync with each other. For example, car sickness is caused when people feeling the car accelerate (vestibular cues) but they aren’t looking outside the window and they don’t see the corresponding visual cues, causing a conflict. VR sickness is the other way around, when navigating in VR, optical cues, like objects passing through the user’s periphery provide the user with the illusion that they are moving but as users sit or stand still there are no vestibular cues, causing a visual-vestibular conflict.
There are significant gender differences in the human visual and vestibular system. Women have a larger field of view, but also have higher thresholds for motion perception. Because women have a smaller inner ear, they have higher thresholds for vestibular sensitivity but they are more adept at integrating sensory input. These physiological differences might explain why women are more likely to get VR sickness.
“One widely applied solution to minimize VR sickness is to block optical flow perception, for example, by narrowing the field-of-view when users navigate,” Folmer says. “However, as women rely, to a larger extent, on landmarks for navigation than men, this could impede their ability to navigate. Our project tries to develop a better understanding of this relationship and figure out whether current VR interfaces are effective in minimizing VR sickness in women while not putting them at a disadvantage regarding spatial navigation.”
“With virtual reality having significant potential to shape the future of how we interact with computers, this project has potential to remove a small but significant barrier for women to participate in computing, which may also increase their representation in technology research and industries.”
Google Research Awards are one-year awards structured as unrestricted gifts to universities to support the work of world-clas,s full-time faculty members at top universities around the world. This award will further strengthen Folmer's and the University’s research collaborations with Google and open up internship opportunities for University students.