Body, Avatar and Gender in Virtual Reality

Can virtual reality stimulate new conversations and create learning opportunities by immersing an audience in a new environment? Dylan Paré and Scout Windsor offer an answer to that question with an innovative academic project that questions our relationship to body, gender and what we project onto our digital avatars. 

Queer & Trans Narratives in Virtual Reality is the particularly descriptive title of the proposed experience. In a virtual reality (VR) environment, one can hear, then react to, stories shared by victims of gender-based discrimination. The stories may be real, but the environment in which they are told is quite fantastic. The vegetation seems otherworldly and one’s avatar — the virtual representation of one’s body — resembles a pile of rocks. 

It is certainly not the most technically accomplished or refined work that virtual reality can offer, which is to be expected: it is a creation with clear academic research objectives. Dylan Paré, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in educational research at the University of Calgary, is studying “the ways in which we can use certain technologies to explore issues of gender and sexuality.” And the project team has created an entire universe for that purpose.

Real testimonies in an unreal world 

So what does the experience look like? Once outfitted with a VR headset, one suddenly finds themselves surrounded by wilderness, sitting by a crackling campfire. There are no predators in sight — all is quiet. A quick look at the flowers suffices to conclude that they are not very ‘earthlike’. This is a fantasy world, and one that is quite surreal. 

So surreal, in fact, that one can’t help but notice a pile of rocks hovering nearby. It may take a few seconds to realize it, but these rocks are actually one’s companion’s avatar.

It is waving its hand and moving its head sideways... Is it young or old, thin or large — no one can say. You can chat, move around and even high-five this person’s avatar — why not have fun with this new ‘body’ for the twenty-odd minutes that the experience lasts? 

“After a while you’ll see blue, sparkly orbs,” says Scout Windsor, who designed and created this world. 

Touching the orb triggers a minute-long audio testimony from someone who has experienced gender-based discrimination in the scientific research field. In total, one will hear three such stories. 

The rest of the experience can be spent exploring this virtual world and — most importantly — conversing with one’s companion, reacting to what one hears, and possibly share one’s own experiences. “We wanted to create an intimate space that is suitable for conversation among friends,” says Dylan. “We cap the experience at two participants at a time because the more people are in there, the harder it becomes to provoke intimate conversations.” 

Queer & Trans Narratives in Virtual Reality is a highly active and interactive experience. It’s not just about turning your head or moving around in a virtual world, but rather about participating, talking and giving yourself away. Two sessions of the experience will have little in common since the tandems of participants will systematically have different reactions and different stories to share.

Of avatars and humans 

Why develop such a strange world? Why create such shapeless avatars? “A body of research shows that the use of virtual agents and avatars can help create meaning and the understanding of complex social issues,” says Dylan. “Virtual agents” refers to a rather broad set of technologies, which can include both artificial intelligence and digital avatars. 

This work deals with a complex and divisive subject. Gender issues are still poorly understood, and it is often difficult to discuss these issues without raising passions or personal biases. 

What Dylan and their team are trying to establish is whether users are more open to conversation, more capable of empathy and sharing when they are transposed into a different universe and represented as an avatar that in no way looks like them. 

“If participants had avatars that looked like them, I think the experience would work differently,” says Dylan. “By using virtual reality, we can give people avatars that are different from their own bodies. Gender and sexuality are very much related to the body and how it is perceived by others. By changing this dynamic of judging others based on their appearance, we change the way we interact, and it opens up a new space and triggers new conversations.” 

Queer & Trans Narratives in Virtual Reality is therefore a multi-user experience with direct communication at its heart. “Most were really open to such interaction,” says Dylan. “There was a wide range of reactions, of ways to participate in the experience. Some became very playful, they wanted to see how their avatars reacted, what happened if they touched their hands. Others shared very deep and insightful opinions and stories.” 

After a hundred-odd sessions, Dylan can draw a number of conclusions. “What I’ve found at this stage is that virtual reality offers many possibilities to foster deep conversations” [provided users are placed in a coherent, stimulating, fun and protective environment]. The conversations that began in the virtual space — based on stories heard during the experience — often carried on once the headset was removed.

This is a major accomplishment given how complex the relationship between learning and virtual reality is. Several experiments have shown that, due to the over-stimulation of our senses in virtual reality, we often find it harder to retain information and details from our immersive experiences. 

In this case, the relative simplicity of the experience preserves a participant’s ability to concentrate. “We wanted the audience to instantly feel comfortable,” says Scout. “There are no controls to learn; you just move your hands in the space.” It’s a clever design choice for a learning and sharing experience — it would be hard to actively listen and understand if one is constantly wondering which buttons to push.

Creating virtual worlds in virtual reality

For Dylan and Scout, the discovery of virtual reality’s potential proved to be revealing. Pioneering works remain in their minds as references, such as exploration game Farlands, which takes place on a strange planet where the fauna and flora change every day.  

This same strangeness can be found in Scout’s work, who has sculpted every element of the experience using two VR creation tools. The first is Tilt Brush, a virtual reality drawing application, and the second is Oculus Medium, a tool for sculpting, modelling and painting virtual objects in three dimensions. 

The decision to use only two VR creation tools was doubly motivated. First it was a matter of pace — the team had four months only to produce the project. But above all, it made generating the entire virtual world an easy task.

A prototype was available within only three weeks. The quality was not perfect and some features were still missing, but the heart of the experiment was there. “In Oculus Medium I gave the virtual environment a life-size scale and invited Dylan to join me,” recalls Scout. 

“We were together in the same environment. We could talk. We had a blast.” The experience was then refined, of course, including after every monstration. “We were constantly improving the experience. For example, we incorporated haptic feedback at the hand level so that the controllers vibrate if you give your partner a high-five.” 

The experience has since stopped evolving, as Dylan and Scout devote their time to a new project nourished by what they learned from this first experience. However, Queer & Trans Narratives in Virtual Reality could come back to life in the near future.

Until then, other actors will have invited themselves onto the stage of collective and conversational experiences, in which our avatars will be able to play a determining role in the way we interact with others. Perhaps the most ambitious of these is Facebook Horizon, set to launch in a few months.

This is a space to watch, as it will potentially have a great influence on the way we embody avatars and hold conversations of different natures. Dylan raises a fundamental point: “This preconception that we need our avatars to be as realistic as possible may be wrong. When it comes to our bodies and avatars in virtual reality, it is important for us to be able to play with them, change them and explore our identities without necessarily reflecting how we look in real life.” 

Benjamin Hoguet
Benjamin Hoguet is a writer and a designer of interactive and transmedia works. He has contributed to many interactive documentary, fiction and comic strip projects. He has also written for Éditions Dixit four books on new forms of storytelling that make up the La Narration Réinventée collection.
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