The world is built for men. Is virtual reality next?

Clovis McEvoy
December 12, 2023

From seatbelts to office temperatures, the world is built for men. In its history so far, virtual reality has gone the same way, with headsets that don't fit a large portion of female faces.

Almost ten years ago, Microsoft researcher danah boyd asked a provocative question: Is the Oculus Rift Sexist? It was the dawn of virtual reality’s modern revival and Meta had just purchased scrappy start-up, Oculus VR, for a cool $2bn.

The sexism that boyd, who stylises her name without capitals, refers to was not interpersonal or societal, but physiological. She recounts an experience with an early VR headset that left her suddenly and violently sick. Observing that her male counterparts seemed to have no trouble at all, whilst the queasy feeling was pervasive for many of her female colleagues, she chose to investigate in more depth.

Cybersickness is common. Many users experience initial discomfort during their first experience in a VR headset, similar to the nausea that a large portion of Minecraft players experience whilst playing the limited field of view game. For some, the feeling can last hours, rendering VR a debilitating experience.

At the time, boyd received a fair amount of pushback against the idea that gadgets could be sexist. Subsequent research, however, confirmed those early alarm bells and established scientific evidence that women experienced cybersickness at rates far higher than men. Much less clear was the reason why.

Explanations ranged from limited physical balance to heightened abilities to detect subtle visual clues. The problem became so widespread and intractable that some in the field recommended that companies drop the pursuit of virtual reality altogether.

But now we know. Recent studies have revealed that cybersickness and its gender imbalance comes down to a blindingly obvious design flaw: IPD mismatch.

IPD stands for interpupillary distance – the gap between a person’s eyes. For fear of sounding obvious, correctly aligning the lenses of a virtual reality headset with the user’s eyes is crucial. Misalignment can cause a range of visual disturbances, particularly cybersickness.

Conducted by researchers from design tech firm Design Interactive and weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the study found that the overwhelming majority of virtual reality headsets on the market in 2020 have been designed without regard for female measurements.

Meta’s flagship headset at the time, the 2019 Oculus Rift S, would not fit a staggering 45% of women. Wearing an uncalibrated headset like this makes the user twice as likely to experience cybersickness, sometimes for more than an hour after playing. Calibrated headsets, by contrast, leave women no more likely to experience cybersickness than men.

From seatbelts and stab vests that don’t fit to workplaces that are less safe, the world has not been built for women. So far, headsets have been going the same way.

You might think that such a revelatory study would have sent VR manufacturers scrambling to correct their error. But almost a decade on from the Rift S, an upgrade on the original Oculus Rift (2016), progress has remained stubbornly slow. 

Meta’s latest flagship headset, the Quest 3, has an IPD range of 58-71mm, which excludes 15% of women (and 7% of men). That range is actually a downgrade from Meta’s previous flagship, the Quest Pro, which had a wider range of 55-75mm, excluding just 5% of women (and 1% of men). 

It’s also a downgrade on the original Oculus Rift, which had a larger range when it came out back in 2016. IPD ranges have gone in the wrong direction for almost a decade. Other recent headsets, like the Valve Index and the now-cancelled Pico 5, perform even worse.

All the while, VR is steadily being integrated into healthcare, education, design, architecture and dozens of other industries. For some workers, a portion that will only increase in the near future, wearing a headset is a job requirement. 

It's is also making waves as a leisure device. The Quest 3 outsold Apple’s AirPods during Black Friday this year.

Companies like Meta and Apple continue to bet big on extended reality (Meta’s spend has reached $36 billion). Their research and products will play a defining role in the future of headsets, and we should expect them to set baseline standards that make virtual reality accessible to all.

Today, only 10% of women describe themselves as ‘experienced’ with virtual reality, compared to 40% of men. Cybersickness is not the only factor in this gender imbalance, but it surely isn’t helping.

Left unsolved, the issue of IPD mismatch and cybersickness would leave women profoundly disadvantaged in careers that utilise virtual reality for training and work, and would perpetuate the historic gender imbalance in emerging technology. It would be an opportunity cost of incalculable proportions.

The majority of VR headsets have been designed without regard for female measurements.

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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.