Female architects, designers, trainee pilots and even computer gamers should be given much wider computer screens, a team of computer scientists from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Microsoft's research lab in Redmond, Washington, told a computer usability conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last week. Wider screens and more realistic 3D animations, they say, will boost women's spatial orientation and 3D map-reading skills to match those of their male counterparts.
It may sound like sexual prejudice, but it seems that men's much-debated ability to navigate slightly better than women applies in virtual environments as well as the real world. And on average, says Microsoft computer scientist Mary Czerwinski, men are quicker to create a mental map of an environment and orient themselves within it.
"Unfortunately, it tends to be the case that women have lower spatial ability- and that's true in virtual worlds too," she says. This is thought to have evolutionary origins. Male hunter-gatherers roamed far afield, creating and following mental maps to do so. Women, on the other hand, had more piecemeal maps centred on landmarks such as a homestead.
Microsoft has found that women tend to be about 20 per cent slower than men when working out where they are in a computer-generated world. So led by Desney Tan from Carnegie Mellon, Czerwinski and her Microsoft colleague George Robertson ran tests on volunteers to see if they could improve this.
They found that women were just as good as men at virtual navigation when they had a large computer display. "The gender difference simply disappeared," says Czerwinski. A standard monitor gives a viewing angle of about 35¡. With a larger screen, giving a viewing angle of 70°, women navigated better. And with two screens delivering a 100° angle, women matched men's spatial abilities.
But there was a proviso. Women only matched men when the 3D virtual environment moved smoothly as they progressed through it. "You have to generate each image frame so the optical flow simulates accurately the experience of walking down, say, a hallway," says Robertson. Women, they found, find it easier to get their bearings when this animation is smooth and realistic, rather than jerky.
This might seem obvious, but many 3D software packages don't "render" the images smoothly, preferring to jump from one point to another in the environment as users progress through it. "You just appear magically in a new place, and women find that far inferior to having a smooth optical flow of the environment," says Czerwinski. Something about the jerky motion appears more disorienting to women than men.
In particular, the team hope their results will help women match men in virtual-reality training situations. Czerwinski told the conference that women traditionally do not do as well as men in such simulations, which are often used in firefighting and armed-services training.
Written by PAUL MARKS
New Scientist issue: 19th April 2003
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