April 7, 2014

Are 3D Visualization Systems Victims of Male Domination?

 I suppose that the most often repeated news of the week has to be Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR to the tune of $2 billion. While the acquisition gave commentators an opportunity to share their many opinions on what this means for the Oculus Rift and the future adoption of virtual reality systems, one article in particular caught my attention with a jarring bit of click bait, “Is the Oculus Rift Sexist?”. Despite the title, the article also included an academic paper detailing some interesting facts about how humans perceive 3D environments that is well worth the read. (Be warned that the paper is titled “SexVision.PDF”, don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe for work!)

3D visualization has always been of interest to me but it was pretty far down on my list of wants. I’ve tried working with 3D monitors and while it looked pretty cool it did not increase my efficiency and it definitely increased my level of fatigue. However, I will often choose the 2D version of a movie over the 3D version for similar reasons; it seems more fatiguing and I catch myself thinking about the 3D more than the plot of the movie which ruins the entire idea of it being an immersive experience for me. Some of this is inherent to the technology, but, some of it is particular to me. I have reduced vision in one eye due to a bit of overzealousness with welding torches back when I thought I wanted to be Chris Stevens. It’s not bad and I only notice it when I put on a set of 3D glasses or use binoculars. The point here is that 3D visualization systems are not developed with this in mind. They are built, tested and refined by folks in computer labs that for the most part have equal vision in each eye. However, if you’ve been in a computer lab or video game design firm lately you’ll notice something else about those testers; they are predominantly male.

According to the previously mentioned “SexVision.pdf” this might be a problem. In general, female participants are much more likely to experience motion sickness compared to males when using 3D virtual reality visualization systems. As it turns out this may be due to differences in biology caused by hormonal differences in the eye between males and females. As it turns out there are more sex hormones in the eyes than any other part of the body outside of the gonads. This difference seems to cause male and female participants to react differently when spatial cues come into conflict. The two (of multiple) cues in question are motion parallax and Shape From Shading (SFS). Motion parallax refers to the relative differences in speed between different parts of an object as it (or the observer) is moving. Shape From Shading is information derived about the shape of an object based upon the difference in reflected light. Assuming there is a constant light source, and the object has consistent absorption rates, the parts of the object further from the viewer will appear darker and those closer will appear lighter. Sometimes these to come into conflict. The gist of the paper is that males tend to prioritize motion parallax over SFS (like most VR visualization programs) while females tend to prioritize SFS over motion parallax. Some of this differentiation in computer program may be because of a bias by the largely male programmers but it is also due to the fact that motion parallax is much easier to simulate than is shading from a programming perspective.

So, why is this important? I for one have been very happy to see more women join the largely male audiences at 3D imaging conferences. I think the trend will continue not only through the law of averages in mass adoption of the technology, but also as applications for industries that are not so male dominated as the petro-chemical sector begin to utilize 3D imaging. However, we must be careful to adopt deliverables and visualization systems that help everyone, not just those most like the programmer of a particular application. As an example, I had seriously considered the Oculus Rift for virtual tours and visualizations to zoning boards, investors and other non-technical people. But with a significant percentage of that group being female I am now reconsidering. The idea was to leave them with a feeling of “Wow!” not “I think I’m going to puke!” We (especially here in the US) often do our best to treat everyone equally, and with good reason. However, we may be discovering that while we know enough to be equal in reality we’re not quite there when it comes to simulating it.

Photo: Occulus VR

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