Why Effective VR Development Demands Diversity

Why a diverse workforce is vital to developing effective VR

16Jan

It's safe to say that white men have dominated pretty much all of the world's main technological advancements so far. According to the Observer, around 25% of computing roles are held by women while only 11% of executive positions in Silicon Valley are awarded to female employees and just 5% of all tech start-ups are fronted by women. The IT industry has typically been intimidating and restrictive for non-male employees.

And it's not just gender that's lacking diversity in the IT world. The tech industry's workforce is overrepresented by white and Asian men, an Atlassian study revealing that just 5% of the tech workforce are Black or Latinx. These disappointing statistics are alarming, to say the least, demonstrating just how much innovation in this sector has been driven by an overwhelming bias towards white males.

Needless to say, in the current climate, the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley is now a serious concern. Indeed, with many individuals and groups speaking out about the issue, awareness has never been higher. Recently, significant steps have been taken to combat the worrying attitudes driving a lack of diversity in tech. Schools are encouraging women and minorities to consider degrees and jobs in computer science, and companies like Google are openly publishing their diversity statistics and committing to hiring more women and people of color. The future of the tech industry will be driven (at least in part) by the fresh perspectives of a wider range of employees from different backgrounds, genders, and races.

Despite changing attitudes and the highly-publicized promises from large, influential organizations, complete equality in the industry is unfortunately still quite a way off. A 2017 study by North Carolina State University and Cal Polytech State University, California found that when the users were genderless, code written by women was accepted by GitHub at a rate of 78.6%. For men, the rate was 74.6%. But when the coders were identified as women, their acceptance rate plummeted well below the men's. Clearly, prevailingly sexist attitudes are still heavily influencing perceptions of women in the industry.

One of the study's coauthors, Emerson Murphy-Hill, an associate professor at North Carolina State University, addressed these findings in an interview with NC State news, stating that 'there's a strong belief among developers in open source that the process is a pure meritocracy. This research casts doubt on that belief. That doubt is important. So if women aren't making software, the end software may be somewhat exclusionary. So the software industry (and, in the end, the public) is missing an opportunity when women are excluded, whatever the reason for that exclusion.' Murphy-Hill demonstrates the importance of diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, arguing that a varied range of perspectives when developing software is necessary to an end product that suits a broader demographic.

Virtual reality is on everyone's minds right now. Hailed as the new technological revolution, early estimates by VentureBeat suggest that VR will be a $30 billion industry by 2020. It's also being enthusiastically touted as an area with the potential to be the first technological revolution not spearheaded almost exclusively by white men. Yet the gaming industry, where a large proportion of the development is taking place, is sadly still far from achieving equal representation. Gender bias and the ripple effect of 2014's #gamergate is still felt throughout the industry. According to the same survey, just 22% of game developers are women, some of whom have been subject to open hostility for their work in gaming.

In an interview with us, Cindy Mallory, Business Analyst and VR Game Developer at DreamSail Games, stated that 'the struggle for inclusion in gaming culture for women and non-cis individuals is still raging. White papers demonstrate a disparity in access to virtual reality and highlight a gap in wages and hire for women working in VR development. As a woman accustomed to being a minority in my field, it’s devastating to compile audience segmentation reports that indicate the “smart” thing to do is design a game geared towards placating the male millennials dominating the pool.' While the focus is on male experiences in VR, developers will inevitably create a space that can be used a platform for abuse and harassment against women and POC. This has unfortunately been the case with many white male-centric games that have been used as vehicles for abusive, discriminatory behavior. But Mallory still thinks VR has real potential to become part of a progressive movement for minorities working in tech. She goes on to say that 'VR is a space that is ripe for equality. There are amazing communities of developers and evangelists formed around the movement to support Women in VR.'

While creating VR with white males solely in mind could potentially create a platform for abuse, it's not the only issue that could arise from the lack of diversity in the industry. There are biological differences between genders that could be overlooked. Rebecca Hite, an assistant professor of STEM education at Texas Tech University, found there are significant differences in how males and females process spatial information. In an interview with Seeker, she explained that 'there is a body of research suggesting women have poorer spatial ability than men. However, when partitioning spatial memory from spatial ability, other studies have shown that women fared better than men, suggesting spatial processing may be genetically, perhaps evolutionarily, different between the sexes.' Given that all indicators suggest we will increasingly spend more and more time in VR in the future, it would be a big problem if one half of the population's experience with VR was fundamentally different to the others. This unique situation is exactly why VR has such potential to be a technological leap that breaks free from the biases that came before it. It's inherently, undeniably important that women and other minorities are involved in the research and development process of VR so it can have broad appeal and success.

Many tech companies are supporting diversity in VR specifically in the hopes that it can be the catalyst for change in the whole industry. For example, Oculus have announced they will put $10 million towards supporting VR creators and coders from a diverse range of backgrounds, including women and POC. It's a technological revolution with the exciting potential to be an incredible step forward for humans with almost limitless potential, but, to achieve this, it's very foundation must be built on diversity.

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