In October 2022, Forbes reported that 100,000 people had stopped using Meta’s social VR app, Horizon Worlds. This wasn’t surprising, given that Meta’s employees apparently weren’t using it either. In internal memos, Vishal Shah, Meta’s VP of Metaverse, reprimanded employees for not using (and not ‘falling in love’ with) the app, arguing that “the aggregate weight of papercuts, stability issues, and bugs is making it too hard for our community to experience the magic of Horizon.”
Mark Zuckerberg seemed to think we’d experience that ‘magic’ if our avatars in VR had legs. After hurrying through “big improvements to [avatar] representation,” Zuckerberg showed off his virtual legs by making his avatar jump. “I think everyone’s been waiting for this! But seriously, the legs are hard.” Later it was revealed that this was a simulation rather than a demonstration. If this was all part of a larger strategy, it didn’t seem to be working. Articles around that time calculated that, so far, Meta had spent about US$36 billion on the metaverse. Less than a month later, Zuckerberg announced that Meta would cut 11,000 jobs, contributing to broader layoffs across the tech sector.
Meta hasn’t been the only company struggling with its VR platforms. Microsoft cut 10,000 jobs in the same month that they announced that their own social VR app, Altspace VR, would be shutting down. It was an echo of a similar announcement a few years ago: in 2017, Altspace had run out of money, only to be revived by Microsoft. Now, Microsoft’s announcement declared that they would ‘sunset’ the platform to transition from consumer to business experiences, devoting attention to a “more open, accessible, and secure version of immersive experiences in the metaverse”.
Caught between these tumultuous factors and the ongoing hype about the metaverse, we still know very little about who is using VR or why. For VR researchers in the field of human-computer interaction, there is an additional problem. Trying to understand barriers (and opportunities) of VR use are complicated by the difficulty recruiting demographically diverse research participants.
For example, Radiah et al. (2021) and Blackwell et al. (2019) both report difficulty recruiting anyone who does not identify as a cisgender man. In one of their studies, Radiah et al. (2021) note that the sample was so skewed in favour of men that it was impossible to study gender differences as a variable of interest, reporting the challenges they faced attempting to recruit women. Similarly, while Blackwell et al. (2019) report important findings about harassment in VR, the authors acknowledge that their participant pool reveals clear gaps: an absence of demographic data to better account for race and ethnicity; an absence of data on sexual orientation; and an absence of data on women and other marginalised gender identities in VR.
Researchers know this is a problem and still have difficulty avoiding it. In a paper about self-disclosure in social VR software, Sykownik et al. (2022) whittled down 221 survey responses to 126 complete responses that they could use for analysis. From there, 107 participants chose to indicate their gender identity: 77 out of 107 identified as cisgender men. The authors write, “the core limitation of our study is a homogeneous sample in terms of the platforms and demographic groups it represents” (p. 13). In an interview study on mitigating harassment in social VR, Freeman et al. (2022b) write, “we acknowledge that there are not many voices in this study that would be considered most marginalized or most at risk in tech spaces” (p. 26). Of their 30 interviewees, 21 identified as cisgender men.
Although each of these studies gives us more insight into VR use, it can seem like we’re mostly learning about men in VR. Even Zuckerberg is aware that VR use is male-dominated, and he seems to think that’s the reason for the sexual harassment in online VR: “One of the big issues that I think people need to think through is right now there’s a pretty meaningful gender skew, at least in virtual reality, where there’s a lot more men than women. And in some cases that leads to harassment.”
Zuckerberg’s characterisation oversimplifies the issue. It tells us nothing about the problems people face with the software or the hardware, and it tells us nothing about the lack of regulation in these spaces, or the lack of representation and inclusion ranging from production to use. As Clark and Le argue, evidence of sexual assault in the metaverse should not be misconstrued as an isolated problem detached from its social, cultural, and technological factors.
While there are examples of participant research specifically examining non-dominant experiences in VR (e.g., Freeman and Acena, 2022; Freeman et al. 2022a; Gerling et al. 2020), each of these examples also functions as a call to action for more diverse demographics in participant recruitment. There are also efforts to document and discuss the specific challenges of conducting VR studies (e.g., Radiah et al., 2021), but of course we need much more. As a research community, there’s an opportunity to share our strategies towards more inclusive participation.
‘Getting your VR legs’ is slang for working through the physical discomfort of dizziness and nausea in VR environments. It almost works as a broader metaphor for the state of VR as we start 2023, with the slow grind through discomfort with the hope that the nausea might go away. But as Meta works to give us virtual legs, I think we already know that Mark Zuckerberg’s jumping avatar won’t solve the problems of VR.
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