How women and men experience VR differently

Gemma Busoni is a recent high school graduate and co-founder of Discovr, a VR startup based in Los Angeles. While still in school, she started a nonprofit for inner city students in LA to get resources for coding, hacking and other STEM skills. Earlier this year, she stood alongside Michelle Obama on the cover of Seventeen magazine­.

“That was fun,” she said casually.

Exuding confidence as she spoke among several powerful women at a panel called “Entrepreneurs and Intrepreneurs” at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, Busoni talked about how she raised $100,000 for her company, and shared tips for other budding female entrepreneurs searching for funding. The talk featured filmmakers, software engineers and coders who had either started their own company, or innovated new programs within their company (intrapreneurs). Gemma Busoni is the former, but thinks of herself primarily as an educator.

I sat down with Busoni to learn a little more about her opinions on the VR  industry. Immersed in the Grace Hopper atmosphere, our conversations veered towards the implications of virtual reality for women, the potential for VR to be more inclusive, and her experiences as a female gamer and developer in a male-dominated industry.

You’ve started your career pretty early, what’s your proudest accomplishment so far?

We built all of ancient Rome in VR. That’s how we got funding in the first place. It was sick.

What do you think is the scope for VR?

Ideally it would just remove barriers to everything. If you’ve ever seen Star Trek, there’s the Holodeck–that’s what I think of as the ultimate VR experience.

What’s the most inspiring VR experience out there that you wish you had thought of first?

Variable Labs created a 360 experience teaching women to negotiate their salaries. I’ve heard brilliant reviews.

That’s very appropriate to what we’re talking at Grace Hopper, and a great segue. Based on your experience in the field, are there cases where VR products have forgotten about their female consumer base?

Potentially, but I don’t think it’s on purpose. For example, the way that women and men perceive immersion is very different. I distinctly remember seeing an article that said ‘VR is a sexist industry because women get more motion-sick in VR.’ I don’t know a single developer who’s sitting behind his computer like ‘Ha ha ha, I want this woman to feel sick.’

But, as it turns out, ‘motion parallax’ is what makes a male feel immersed and for females its ‘shape from shading.’ If a shadow is off it will ruin the experience for a woman. As opposed to a male, where ‘motion parallax’ is just how things move relative to you. There are fundamental differences in humans that are making these things happen. I don’t think much of it is on purpose.

Oculus just wrote out their new avatar system, and as opposed to other video games where you have to choose ‘male’ or ‘female,’ there’s none of that. There’s just face shape. That’s a really big deal and should be an example that’s followed.

Agreed. Do you think more women entering the industry can help with some of these issues?

VR is very unique in that I’ve never seen so many women come together and be accepted. I distinctly remember going from being a game developer — and being the only girl — to this VR group where there were tons of women. The more women, the faster this will get solved, but things have been changing pretty quickly.

So, you shifted from gaming to VR. What are you looking to create in VR specifically?

In education, I’m personally passionate about making experiences for disabled students. VR is a great way to teach someone with ADHD because they can literally look nowhere else. VR is great for focusing attention–attention rates go up for all students.

It’s also great for people trying to overcome PTSD, people who have muscle tremors, or people who need a little bit of help with empathy and need to see through the eyes of somebody else. There are so many things you can do with VR, it’s endless.

In your opinion, are VR companies are on the track?

Yeah, I would say they’re on the general right track–some could use some nudging now and then. But compared to how other industries have moved I’m very impressed in how progressive the VR industry has been in the last two years.

That optimism is great to hear. And what about gaming, do you think the gaming industry has the potential to be a diver of social change?

Of course, just like anything has the potential. Different mediums reach different crowds. I remember a game where your character was a house mom and you had to somehow do all the chores at once. I remember some boys commenting on it: ‘How the fuck do moms do this?’

Were the male players annoyed about that?

Not annoyed, they saw it as a challenge. It animated in a way that it didn’t seem girly, but it still presented the issue.

That anecdote reminds me of #GamerGate, where many people were outraged about non-stereotypical game designs. As a gamer and game developer, do you think #GamerGate made it easier to have conversations about harassment?

I remember when #GamerGate came around a bunch of women in VR were like, “Well, harassment can happen in a virtual space too.” Even if its two avatars harassing each other, it can still be just as traumatizing and even more so traumatizing in VR. You could get PTSD in VR depending on how immersive the experience is.

Have you had any experiences like that?

I played a lot of League of Legends and I distinctly remember this 12-year-old DDoS-ing me because I wouldn’t be his girlfriend. I didn’t know him at all–we just played league games together. Luckily one of my best friends works at Riot Games–and wrecked him. He got him banned and everything. It was amazing.

That’s awesome. I’ve never heard a story about harassment end like that. Do you have any advice for other female gamers and game developers who face harassment?

There are really amazing communities. For every person throwing out negativity, there’s somebody there who wants to help. There’s a really awesome Facebook group called ‘Women in VR’ and I would say it is the most popular VR group in general, but it’s called ‘Women in VR’. There are so many men in there, and lots of women. If there’s an event and people see Go-Go Girls, they’ll call out the company.  There are people who really push for equality and it’s fantastic.

This story was written as part of a Women in Tech fellowship sponsored by the GroundTruth Project and SiliconANGLE Media’s theCUBE. Other stories reported from the Anita Borg Institute’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Houston can be found at the TechTruth Women in Tech site.