Tag Archives: Virtual Reality

Spatial Ability, Testosterone, and STEM

Takeaway: Women have more difficulty with spatial tasks, which may impact their interest in STEM fields, but AR/VR and 3D printing are coming to the rescue!

It is a well-known fact that men consistently outperform women on spatial reasoning in IQ tests, specifically the Mental Rotations Task (MRT). I shudder when I see the images below from the MRT, with instructions to “select all of the shapes that are exactly the same as the first object in different positions.” Do you know the answer? Fast forward to the end if you’re curious.

Mental Rotation Task

What happens when you take home that Ikea cabinet and try to assemble it? It doesn’t take long before I am speed dialing taskrabbit!  According to recent research, men are more likely to be able to assemble furniture without any instructions. With instructions, however, there was no significant difference between men and women and their ability to assemble furniture. Consistent with your experience? It is with mine.

As you might guess, both biological and social factors can explain the gender difference in spatial ability. One of my favorite studies reported that women perform significantly better on the Mental Rotations Task when given a shot of testosterone. (Sorry, I prefer my poor map reading skills to that!) The gender difference is even found in infants, which also suggests a biological underpinning.

As far as social explanations, look no further than Legos and other building blocks. Until a few years ago, the only Lego products available were designed for typical boy fantasies such as spaceships and forts. Not surprisingly, our two sons loved spending weekends with their dad building out an expansive airport while our two daughters would have nothing to do with it. From infancy, boys are given toys to take apart and reassemble, while girls are given dolls and animals. Fortunately, construction-based toys geared toward girls are becoming more popular with the release of products like Lego Friends and GoldieBlox.


So why should we care about the continuing spatial gender gap?  Spatial ability is positively associated with performance in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) tasks. This means that women may underperform in STEM compared to their male counterparts as a result of their spatial abilities, and this performance difference can affect the number of women who become interested in STEM and ultimately succeed in STEM fields.

The good news is that some types of spatial training can be effective in eliminating the gender gap. Researchers have found improvements in mental rotation ability in girls (and boys with low initial performance) after 3D training in Virtual Reality. This means that the integration of Augmented and Virtual Reality into STEM education may provide the optimal environment for girls to succeed with spatial tasks. Similarly, practice with 3D models in “Maker Labs” in schools may encourage girls to practice and improve their 2D to 3D translation skills in a highly motivating, real world context. They build objects in a 3D graphics program on their computer, then print them out in a 3D printer.

There is more at stake than ever before; spatial ability is critical to many 21st century design and STEM related careers.  Childhood toys and new technologies can be exploited to help minimize the differences between students in their spatial abilities, and hence encourage interest in STEM fields, regardless of gender.

Answer: Both A and C are rotated versions of the first object!

Why Do People Have Such Different Reactions to VR?

Spoiler Alert: Not everyone feels a sense of presence when experiencing Virtual Reality. Research shows that age, gender, cognitive ability, imagination, and personality can affect how one reacts to VR.

When we try VR apps and games in the office, I am always surprised by the different reactions people have to the same app on the same device. Why? The simple answer is that everyone has different tastes and preferences. But according to recent research, some people may be predisposed to experience a sense of presence and immersion in VR, while others do not. (Presence, in case you didn’t read my previous blog post, is the feeling of actually being there in a digital experience.)

Kids. Let’s start with kids. When children play, they use their imaginations to pretend that a cardboard box is a racecar, or the red blocks are a farm. They become completely engaged in their play and may lose track of their surroundings, so naturally one might guess that kids would also find VR immersive. When you put kids into a VR experience, however, their emotional responses, compared to adults, can be “off the charts.” In other words, they feel a sense of presence way more than adults. In one study, kids and adults were put into a VR rollercoaster simulator while researchers measured their brain activity. Adults could control their emotions using a sort of self-reflection technique that provided some emotional distance between themselves and the stimulating virtual experience. Kids, on the other hand, did not know how to use these same “meta-cognitive” strategies to regulate their emotions.

African American boy playing in cardboard box


Researchers explain these differences by suggesting that brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, that regulate our feelings of presence and allow us to control our emotions, don’t fully mature until adulthood. This means that children (and even younger teens) have difficulty convincing the emotion centers of their brains that an immersive experience is NOT real, which makes them particularly susceptible to feelings of extreme presence in VR. The point is that just because you’ve let your kid watch Friday the 13th on TV (ugh) doesn’t mean that it’s OK for them to experience it in VR. For immersive tech like VR, even mature kids don’t yet possess the neural “hardware” to control their emotional responses.

Women VS Men. Interestingly, a few studies have found sex differences regarding feelings of presence. One explanation researchers offer is that females empathize with virtual characters more readily than males, which allows women to feel higher levels of presence. Not everyone agrees, naturally. More research needs to be done to determine whether there really is a consistent gender difference in presence and why.

Cognition. Cognitive ability, which includes things like general intelligence, attention, and spatial skills, may also impact a sense of presence. Some researchers speculate that people with higher attention levels experience higher presence, perhaps because they are better able to concentrate on the virtual world and “tune out” the real world. Another possibility is that people with higher spatial reasoning skills enjoy VR because they are more easily able to process the information in a 3D virtual environment. Males (on average) have better spatial skills than females, thus researchers have suggested that spatial reasoning may be at the crux of any gender differences in feelings of presence.

Imagination. An individual’s level of creative imagination is another factor researchers have examined in explaining individual differences in reactions to VR. (This may be a reason why children are so adept at feeling presence). Research seems to indicate that the more imaginative a person is, the more likely they are to feel presence. One possible explanation is that people who can easily imagine situations tend to mentally fill in any gaps in detail for the virtual world, thus making it seem more realistic and more immersive.

Personality. Finally, there are several personality traits that relate to feelings of presence. First, a person’s willingness to suspend disbelief seems to be a factor. Can you be hypnotized? If so, you’ll probably love VR.  On the other hand, do you get nervous or anxious in new situations? Then you are probably not the best candidate for VR. This may be because nervous people’s negative thoughts distract them from paying attention to and processing their surroundings. Finally, it seems that introversion/extraversion might relate to feelings of presence, with extraverted people feeling more presence on average than introverted people.

Please keep in mind that much of this research is really new, and all of it needs to be replicated. It does, however, provide some guideposts about who the early adopters of VR might be. More importantly, it will help us understand how to design VR experiences for everyone, even folks who aren’t predisposed to like or feel fully immersed when they first put on their Oculus Rift headset.

5 Ways to Optimize Game Immersion

Takeaway: To optimize the feeling of “presence” or immersion in a game, designers should carefully consider: 1) characteristics of the specific game platform they are using (hint-VR is best), 2) representational fidelity cheap mlb jerseys of the game world, 3) level of interactivity/control, 4) relatable avatars, and 5) co-presence in cheap jerseys multiplayer games.

Games can be incredibly immersive, more so than other media. I asked a few of my colleagues at Legacy about their favorite immersive moments in games.

“The realistic physics in Skyrim adds a lot of substance to the world. Coming to the edge of a cliff while riding your horse and knowing that you can fall off if you aren’t careful, or having to figure out how to make an object fall onto an enemy is really compelling.”

“Directional audio makes any experience better. I remember playing the original Half-Life game and hearing a skittering sound coming down the vents before an alien jumped out at me. I fell out of my chair!”

“The demos for the new Star Citizen game look really promising. You’re a spaceship pilot, and it’s in first-person, but you can see your feet and hands when you look down. When you pilot your ship, you see your hands moving to the correct controls, which makes it feel so much more realistic.”

Immersion can Learning lead to increased “presence” or the feeling of actually being there, which is really the of holy grail of game design. What causes presence, and why are some games better at cheap mlb jerseys it than others? Research on the topic has identified a few possible factors.

The first variable is the characteristics 3) of the specific gaming platform. Not surprisingly, VR is distinctly better at generating feelings of presence. This probably stems from the fact that the player is surrounded by eye popping 3D imagery and sound, while most other stimuli are blocked from sensation. Simply said, the more realistic the digital experience, without outside distractions, the greater the chance of immersion.

Let’s Equipment drill down for a moment on this concept of realism in games. This doesn’t necessarily refer to the style of art, e.g., cartoon versus photorealistic. However, within the graphic style, the environment must operate in predictable ways, incorporating smooth transitions, accurate lighting and physics, lag-free movement, etc. Constantly increasing processing power and speed makes representational fidelity easier to achieve, and the developers who succeed in exploiting these capabilities to create ever more realistic VR la worlds will win.

As the comments from my Legacy colleagues suggest, the amount of control the user has in the environment also affects feelings of presence. When the user is able to interact with the environment in complex ways, he or wholesale jerseys she is more likely to feel presence. This makes sense because if you think “I should be able to throw a (Part ball,” but there isn’t one available or the one that is there you can’t interact with, you will be reminded that you are in a game. It pulls you out of the fantasy. A realistic environment is one in which you can play and interact with objects in a natural way.


Image from Star Citizen demo

Another factor that affects feelings of presence is how an avatar is used or appears. Even in first-person games, avatars are important. When you interact with the real world, cheap mlb jerseys you are aware of your hands grasping objects. Similarly, being able to see your avatar’s hands when you interact with a virtual world increases the realism. However, there are instances when an avatar might initially Hemingway, decrease presence. For example, with Virtual Reality, there is some preliminary research that indicates if your avatar is a different gender, ethnicity, body type than you are, you might experience lower feelings of presence.  


An image from World of Warcraft, taken from http://games.ucla.edu/resource/warcrack-for-the-hordes-why-warcraft-pwns-the-world/

Finally, an emerging idea in research is co-presence, or the feeling of actually being in a virtual environment with others. Being able to collaborate with others to accomplish a common goal increases feelings of co-presence. Likewise, being able to see other the avatars of other players, interact with them, and talk to them can lead to co-presence. Co-presence helps explain why multi-player games are enormously engrossing, and why, as an industry, we’ve reluctantly had to deal with issues like videogame addiction.  

In the next blog, I will discuss how individual differences, like age and sex, impact our feelings of immersion in games.