Sexist hardware

It wasn’t planned that way, of course:

In the fall of 1997, my university built a CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) to help scientists, artists, and archeologists embrace 3D immersion to advance the state of those fields. Ecstatic at seeing a real-life instantiation of the Metaverse, the virtual world imagined in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, I donned a set of goggles and jumped inside. And then I promptly vomited.

I never managed to overcome my nausea. I couldn’t last more than a minute in that CAVE and I still can’t watch an IMAX movie. Looking around me, I started to notice something. By and large, my male friends and colleagues had no problem with these systems. My female peers, on the other hand, turned green.

Clearly, further experimentation was called for:

I created scenarios in which motion parallax suggested an object was at one distance, and shape-from-shading suggested it was further away or closer. The idea was to see which of these conflicting depth cues the brain would prioritize. (The brain prioritizes between conflicting cues all the time; for example, if you hold out your finger and stare at it through one eye and then the other, it will appear to be in different positions, but if you look at it through both eyes, it will be on the side of your “dominant” eye.)

What I found was startling [pdf]. Although there was variability across the board, biological men were significantly more likely to prioritize motion parallax. Biological women relied more heavily on shape-from-shading. In other words, men are more likely to use the cues that 3D virtual reality systems relied on.

And that word “biological” is there for a very specific reason:

Scholars in the gender clinic [in Utrecht] were doing fascinating research on tasks like spatial rotation skills. They found that people taking androgens (a steroid hormone similar to testosterone) improved at tasks that required them to rotate Tetris-like shapes in their mind to determine if one shape was simply a rotation of another shape. Meanwhile, male-to-female transsexuals saw a decline in performance during their hormone replacement therapy.

The spiffy new Oculus Rift may compensate for this — or it might not. I’ve never seen one, and for that matter I never was any good at rotating random polygons. I’m thinking, though, that of the various differences between the sexes, this is one of the more easily minimized.

(Swiped from Erica Mauter’s Facebook page.)


  1. McGehee »

    29 March 2014 · 1:30 pm

    It raises the question whether these differences involve hormonal prioritization of cerebral centers, or of structures within those centers. A hormone change could divert resources to areas where the different capabilities are more or less supported than would otherwise occur, or stimulate development of connections that did not previously exist.

  2. CGHill »

    29 March 2014 · 2:00 pm

    Lots of possibilities here, though for the most part, they seem to remind us, or me anyway, just how little we know about how these bodies actually work.

  3. McGehee »

    29 March 2014 · 2:53 pm

    If it’s the development of new connections, the possibilities would include use of hormone therapy to help in rehabilitating victims of brain injury.

  4. McGehee »

    29 March 2014 · 2:54 pm

    …and until seeing this I had no idea just how much I had previously thought about braaaaains.

  5. Jennifer »

    31 March 2014 · 3:12 pm

    Fascinating. Funny enough, I just had an opportunity to try an Oculus Rift this weekend. It’s disorienting, but it seemed to be more disorienting to my husband and son than it was for me. I may be an odd subject though because I’m one of the rare women that has no trouble with spatial rotation.

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