Women In Virtual Reality, So Far

by Daphne Stanford

When’s the last time you heard about a woman in relation to virtual reality? I’m guessing you answered in one of three ways: a.) Characters in a VR/AR world, b.) VR gamers, or c.) VR programmers/content designers. This last point is of most interest to me, since the potential for immersive journalism, education, and arts-related applications is enormous. There are exciting developments taking place that combine technology and the humanities in fascinating, powerful ways. The media tends to cover VR as though it is just another extension of existing, male-dominated institutions like Wall Street and the tech world. Surprisingly, it’s not; rather, it’s a cutting-edge, exciting point of entry for women interested in exerting influence upon the still-nascent and evolving world of VR content and applications.

Because VR is inspiring the creation of so much new media, there’s a lot at stake. Content made for men, by men, is exclusionary in nature because it perpetuates stereotypes and reinforces marginalization for women and every other group that doesn’t have a prominent say in its development. We still have an opportunity to stop this pattern by getting involved, as women—for example, learning as much as we can about software engineering, app-development, and related computer technology, regardless of our primary field of expertise. 

There’s also great potential for women to get more involved as entrepreneurs and designers of VR gear and headsets that a.) Fit women’s bodies, and b.) Minimize the effects of motion sickness (to which women are genetically predisposed). The history of virtual reality is such that women have been involved since the beginning, but we must continue the upward trajectory toward gender parity. Over half of gamers are female; however, the market and culture surrounding virtual reality gaming has some catching up to do with actual reality. More content designed by women will help level the proverbial playing field in order to ensure all players feel safe and included, at all times.

It’s important to realize that many writers and journalists happen to be women. We should take advantage of that fact by focusing our attention to other women making a difference in VR, since the media wields tremendous power in shaping people’s perceptions of reality. Moreover, we live in a time that presents us with a unique opportunity to get involved with VR on the ‘ground level,’ so to speak—both in terms of VR application development and in terms of marketing and entrepreneurial opportunities. For writers, this could mean anything from creating VR-based immersive journalism films to getting involved with companies now incorporating immersive journalism (like The New York Times) to researching and covering influential women in the field.

Beth Egan speculates that now is an excellent time for women to get involved in the world of VR, especially considering the extent to which the medium has been adopted. However, the momentum needs to keep growing. Considering the fact that virtual reality may be implemented into the workplace sooner than we might guess, gender equity is of vital importance. The nausea factor is an important one to consider. Advanced technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), AR, and VR could become a psychological and equity issue for women in the workplace if the nausea factor isn’t addressed. However, we’re still able to weigh in on the exact forms these technologies will take. If we strive to ensure intuitive communication is enhanced, rather than stifled, everyone will benefit.

VR Applications: Portrayal Vs Reality

I recently came across an article about VR ‘hype’ versus the reality of where we are now, in terms of user interest, market value, and applications. One paragraph, in particular, stood out:

To no one’s surprise, women aren’t nearly as interested as men in VR. Gamers are largely male, and that’s the initial target market for VR manufacturers. Until VR expands beyond the gaming community, the Rifts of the world will miss out on about half the population.

My first thought was, “But that’s not true!” Then I noticed the sentence immediately following, emphasis on the term Gamers. Well, if that’s what they’re associating with VR, it makes some sense that men are the ones primarily associated with gaming—even though that’s not actually the case. VR has greatly expanded its reach and trajectory to include a number of ‘real life’ applications, e.g. immersive journalism, virtual art/design, and educational training—most notably in the medical training field. Moreover, there is much talk of the possibility of using VR to increase empathy between oft-misunderstood demographic groups; for example, cis-men and transgender individuals.

So why the continued focus on gaming? It could have a lot to do with simple market economics: video games are highly lucrative, and there’s also money to be had from the use of virtual and augmented reality in sales and marketing. As a result, mobile app development, data tracking, and marketing research conducted via virtual reality all have strong growth potential for entrepreneurial women with marketing backgrounds.  

The market has become a war of competing ideas and philosophies, as well, and the brands being sold represent lifestyles that are being marketed. Case in point: Patagonia, a brand which—to its credit—markets sustainability and adventure in still-wild places. Because of this reality, it’s important for women to get involved with the content creation side of VR: what ideas will be marketed via VR/AR technology? Will they remain limited to those associated with immersive games, military training simulation, and pornography, or will they expand to become associated with expansive visions in immersive journalism, visual art/design, science, and education applications?

One excellent source of information is Women in Virtual Reality (WIVR), an organization that aims to provide networking and advocacy support for women in the field. Their latest update, for example, featured immersive journalism-pioneer Nonny de la Peña—also known as the ‘godmother of virtual reality.’ De la Peña’s VR-based journalism has weighed in on policy debates on homelessness, Syrian refugees, and women’s reproductive healthcare, and now even the New York Times has adopted immersive journalism in the form of NYT VR. The stories—told through putting a VR gamer in the shoes of someone dealing with homelessness or refugee status—leave the viewer with a deeper sense of empathy and compassion as a result of having virtually walked in someone else’s shoes.

If that’s not influential, I don’t know what is. In this case, the pen is mightier than the sword. Let’s take that pen and run with it.

Photo via Woodley Wonderworks.

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