Meet the Makers Blogs
“Manipulation of the Senses, VR and Gender” – Andrina Imboden
In the Transmission in Motion seminar Meet the Makers: Grace Boyle on the 6th of December 2021, Lianne Toussaint moderated a talk with the multi-sensory storyteller Grace Boyle. This resulted in an inspiring discussion on the manipulation of the senses in art, virtual reality, and cross-modal correspondences, to name only a few of the topics.
At some point in time, Grace Boyle raised the question: “How much of a person’s perception do you want to command?” This question resonated with me and sent me on a journey of reflection on the responsibility of art, the intentions of manipulating the audience’s senses or bodily experience, and what is at stake.
One of Transmission in Motion’s main research interests is somatechnics. In particular, the journal Somatechnics: Journal of Bodies – Technologies – Power publishes research from various academic fields relating to the body, exploring ethical, technological, and political implications. Thus, the question about commanding people’s perception and senses led me to think about this ethical and political approach to the body–technology relationship.
The artist Grace Boyle herself works in productions such as Munduruku with Virtual Reality tools and sensory technicians in order to enable a multi-sensory and embodied experience of augmented reality within the spectator. The (soma-)technological sensory cues are hereby developed and delivered to manipulate the physical experience and emotional impact on the perception of certain social contexts.
How does multi-sensory storytelling like the one described above affect the way the senses inform our perception? How can the motor-sensory system be addressed to provide the audience with an alternative approach to reality and experience? What political and ethical consequences imply such a somatechnical manipulation of the senses? It may not possible to explore these questions further in this blog post, however, they point me in the direction of thinking about political and gendered aspects of the method and medium of virtual reality tools themselves.
Grace Boyle herself noted that she did not come into contact with VR for a long while, since it seemed to be a gendered space, occupied by masculinities in terms of gaming applications. At another point, however, she mentioned that she assumes empathy to be the most overused word in the VR world. Since in the public’s eye, empathy is considered as a more “female trait”, I decided to investigate issues around VR and gender more closely.
I was looking for research on inherently gendered mechanisms in the VR world. As a result, I found a study by Stanney, Fidopiastis, and Foster of 2020. They confirm that cybersickness, referring to motion sickness from VR exposure, affects more women than it does affect men. I myself, as a person assigned female at birth and mostly identifying as such, have experienced cybersickness without even considering that VR experiences have gendered target audiences. Thus, it is interesting for me to learn about and unpack the gendered layers of these past experiences now.
Additionally, a conference paper of the Annual Conference of the International Society on Presence Research discloses that in VR “[m]en generally reported a higher sense of spatial presence, more perceived realism and higher levels of the sense of actually being in the environment than women” (Felnhofer et al. 2012). Thus, it not only seems that more women experience cybersickness while engaging with VR technology but there also appears to be a gendered difference in the experience of realism and actuality.
Gathering the above points together, it can be conclusively stated that multi-sensory storytelling, VR technology, and other somatechnical experiences can have a great impact on a person’s perception of and emotional reaction to social situations, different sensations, and body perception. In turn, technologies such as VR tools are developed based on specific human ways of perceiving, sensing, and experiencing. The studies above suggest that those may mainly consist of male experiences since the handling of VR technologies seems to come easier for men. It would therefore be interesting to subsequently research the reciprocal relationship of social impacts of VR technologies and the inherent social biases within the medium itself.
- Felnhofer, Anna, Oswald D. Kothgassner, Leon Beutl, Helmut Hlavacs, and Ilse Kryspin-Exner. 2012.”Is virtual reality made for men only? Exploring gender differences in the sense of presence.” Proceedings of the International Society on presence research: 103-112.