Gender gap shows cyberspace bias

By Susanna Space, 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 roles.

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 software.

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 hands.

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 poor.

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,” she said.

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," she said.

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.

Timeline:   Now
Funding:   Office of Naval Research
TRN Categories:  
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.


July 4/11, 2001

Page One

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Gender gap shows cyberspace bias

Software lets appliances speak softly

Molecular shuttle gains light throttle

Light-sensitive memory does not fade


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