Our research shows differences in the way racial groups experience VR.
- Demographic factors including age, gender, and race might impact people’s sense of „presence“ in VR.
- Previous underrepresentation in research hinders understanding of racial differences in VR.
- In our research, Black participants consistently reported a higher sense of presence than White participants.
- Addressing demographic differences in presence can ensure that VR is equally accessible for everyone.
The ever-evolving realm of virtual reality (VR) has far outgrown its gaming roots, permeating various industries including medicine, education, manufacturing, engineering, and military training. The secret ingredient for the success of VR applications is the concept of „presence“—the illusion of truly being there in the virtual environment. This sensation plays a pivotal role in optimizing a plethora of VR outcomes, from task performance and training efficacy to pain distraction and empathy building. But what stimulates this vital sense of presence, and what factors influence it? Our research team, stationed at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, delved into these questions.
In the VR universe, presence signifies an individual’s subjective experience of reality within a virtual environment. This elusive concept is the bedrock of a successful VR experience, occurring when users accept the virtual world as real and become totally engrossed in it.
Historically, VR research has underscored technological aspects like hardware and software that can shape this sense of presence. However, given the subjective nature of presence, different users may perceive the same virtual environment in vastly different ways. This sense of presence is thus a cocktail of the immersive features of the VR system and the individual user’s characteristics.
To amplify the effectiveness of VR applications, it’s paramount to understand how user characteristics impact presence experiences. For instance, does age, gender, or race influence how present someone feels in a VR environment?
Our research team has engaged more than 1,000 participants from the local community in these research studies. Participants experienced various VR environments, ranging from a virtual buffet restaurant to a virtual physician’s office. Over the years, the VR headset used has evolved, starting with the nVisor SX60 headset and gradually transitioning to advanced models such as the HTC Vive and Vive Pro. Post-VR experience, we asked participants to rate their sense of presence in the environment. We broke down their experiences along demographic lines.
Our data appears to show that age has minimal impact on one’s sense of presence. This held true regardless of whether the presence was environmental or social, or the timing of the study. However, the age range of our participants was narrow, having no one under 18 or over 60.
Our data found mixed results for gender. Sometimes women reported feeling more present in their physical environment than men. Other times, men reported feeling more present. As for social presence, no significant differences were found between genders. A meta-analysis of all the studies revealed no overall gender difference in presence.
Interestingly, the time when the study was conducted seems to affect the results. In more recent studies, women reported significantly more presence than men, while in older studies, men reported more presence. This could reflect evolving societal norms and gender roles.
Existing empirical data on racial differences in VR experiences is scant, likely due to the underrepresentation of diverse participants in research. Often, studies that include participants of other races lack sufficient numbers for conclusive comparisons. Consequently, current reports of no significant racial differences in VR presence may reflect a lack of data rather than an absence of inherent differences.
In our own data, we had a significant number of Asian, Black, and White participants to compare feelings of presence across these groups. Black participants consistently reported a higher sense of presence than White participants. This held true regardless of the type of presence measured and was consistent in both older and newer studies. However, no significant difference in presence was reported by Asian and White participants.
The Whys of Demographic Differences
While our research aimed to identify potential demographic differences, we didn’t endeavor to explain why they exist. One hypothesis is that different attitudes towards and familiarity with VR content might influence feelings of presence. Alternatively, age, gender, and race might serve as proxies for physical differences impacting what different bodies can experience in VR.
Crucially, it’s likely that various factors impact presence simultaneously, interacting with and counteracting one another.
The Importance of Evaluating Demographic Differences in Presence
So, why does this matter? As VR is increasingly applied to important areas like therapy and education, it’s vital to ensure that everyone can equally access and benefit from this technology. This necessitates understanding and addressing any demographic differences in presence.
To achieve this, we must continue rigorous research to explore how different demographic groups experience VR. We need to understand not just the differences in presence, but also how these differences might affect the effectiveness of VR applications. For instance, if certain demographic groups consistently report lower feelings of presence, this could potentially limit the effectiveness of VR therapies or training programs for these groups.
The role of VR designers and researchers is paramount in this effort. They must be aware of potential biases in their work and strive to create VR environments that are inclusive and equitable for all users. This includes considering the content and context of VR experiences carefully, as well as the size and shape of VR equipment, to ensure equal access for all.
By doing so, we can ensure that VR not only advances in technological prowess but also evolves to be a tool that serves every demographic with the same effectiveness. This will allow VR to truly reach its potential as a revolutionary tool for a variety of applications, from training and education to therapy and beyond.
As we continue to navigate the reality of diversity in the virtual world, we must keep these considerations at the forefront. Only by understanding and addressing these differences can we ensure that the virtual world is a space that is accessible, inclusive, and equitable for everyone, regardless of their age, gender, or race.
Martingano, A.J., Duane, JN., Brown, E. Persky, S. (2023). Demographic differences in presence across seven studies. Virtual Reality. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10055-023-00805-z