gap shows cyberspace bias
Technology Research News
For the past 25 years a paper and pencil
test has provided consistent evidence of one of the largest cognitive
differences between men and women. The mental rotation test, which asks
subjects to turn an object around in their minds, has shown that women,
on average, have more difficulty with this type of spatial orientation
than men do.
A University of Washington study has shown that the difference is not
only carried over, but becomes exaggerated in virtual environments. "This
difference between men and women is increased when one is exploring the
virtual rather than a real space," said Earl Hunt, professor of psychology
at the University of Washington.
The conclusion has ramifications for the increasing use of virtual reality
(VR) tools for training and for assessing performance in the real world.
“If performance in a virtual environment is used to predict performance
in a real environment, then the predicted scores for women would probably
be lower than the scores women would obtain if they were to perform in
an actual environment,” said Hunt.
The study also showed that the exaggerated gender discrepancy in spatial
skills is not due to a difference in the ability to maneuver in virtual
environments. In other words, it isn’t because men are more comfortable
with using joysticks.
For the study, the researchers trained a group of male and female users
in joystick navigation. This first, active group then used the joystick
to explore a maze. A second, passive group viewed the maze, but did not
use a joystick.
Participants in both groups were then transported to a location within
the maze and told to use a joystick to find a specific object. If an inherent
difference in joystick proficiency were to blame for the gender discrepancy,
women in the active group would have performed significantly worse, relative
to men, than women in the passive group. Instead, the researchers found
that men and women performed about the same in both the active and passive
The results are part of a larger body of evidence that suggests that gender
plays an important and complicated role in the use of virtual reality
A Michigan State University study has shown that women prefer more passive
environments while men prefer a higher degree of interactivity in virtual
reality learning tools. In that study, 30 percent of females versus 14
percent of males preferred an environment where all they did was observe
without interacting, while 42 percent of females versus 61 percent of
males wanted to interact with both humans and computers, said Carrie Heeter,
a professor of telecommunication at Michigan State University.
A second Michigan study found that women more than men preferred virtual
reality environments that included real-world elements like sound effects,
video, music and touch. For instance, given the option of seeing their
own hands or computer-generated hands when exploring a virtual environment,
women preferred to see their own hands, while men preferred to see computer-generated
These results all suggest that a man and a woman can enter the same virtual
world and perceive significantly different things, said Heeter. “There
is a natural tendency to assume everyone else experiences the world the
way we do. That assumption is incorrect,” she said.
Meanwhile, organizations are increasingly exploring virtual reality as
a training device because it is inexpensive, the environment can be precisely
controlled, and test results can be delivered quickly. The Research Triangle
Institute, an independent research organization in North Carolina, for
instance, has developed virtual reality training systems for personal
computers that are aimed at the classroom.
Similar virtual reality systems are already in use. The U.S. Navy, for
example, uses a Synthetic Environmental Tactical Integration (SETI) program
to simulate undersea warfare. Using this technology, a submarine in the
Bahamas can launch a virtual torpedo that exists only on a TV screen inside
of the sub and on a computer in Newport, RI. According to a naval paper
on the SETI project, virtual reality “will undoubtedly change the way
sailors train to fight [using] their ships and aircraft.”
NASA is also investing in virtual reality. The organization has slated
about $75 million to develop synthetic vision, a virtual reality system
that will allow pilots to see landmarks on a screen when visibility is
The University of Washington study shows that gender has a greater impact
on virtual reality navigation and, by extension, virtual reality experiences
in general, than previously thought, said Heeter. “VR depends so strongly
upon navigation that ease of navigation is equivalent to ease of use,”
These latest results are a step toward a better understanding of human
interaction with virtual reality technology, said Hunt. “I would not want
anyone to abandon this useful technology based on our results,” he cautioned.
Instead, the findings can help scientists begin to identify ways to adjust
virtual environments so that people’s performance better reflects their
performance in the real world.
In order to truly understand how virtual environments could be made gender-neutral,
researchers need a better understanding of why gender differences in cognition
exist in the first place.
The virtual maze experiment is a good tool to study the differences in
male-female spatial cognition, said Heeter. "The virtual maze appears
to magnify these differences, as if looking at them under a microscope,"
One key question, said Heeter, is whether there are fundamental differences
in how male and female brains process spatial information or whether men
are just more adept at a method that we all use. "It would be interesting
to measure verbal and interpersonal ability of maze and test subjects,
to look for a possible inverse relationship between verbal ability and
spatial ability. Perhaps regardless of gender, people with strong verbal
ability tend to have weaker spatial ability and vice versa," she said.
The University of Washington researchers' next steps are to "find out
why [the difference] exists and define some way of ameliorating it," said
Hunt. "What we need to know is what sort of training or technological
adjustments can be made so the performance in virtual environments adequately
predicts performance in the real world for both men and women," he said.
Earl Hunt’s research colleagues were Maryam Allahyar and Eiko Sogo at
the University of Washington. They presented the research at the American
Psychological Society annual convention in Toronto, on June 16, 2001.
The research was funded by the Office of Naval Research.
Funding: Office of Naval Research
Story Type: News
Related Elements: Technical paper, "Active Versus Passive
Learning in Virtual Environments," presented at the American Psychological
Society annual convention in Toronto, on June 16, 2001.
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