Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Working around the SDK default profile setting for gender

Here’s how the Oculus SDK default profile handles gender:

#define OVR_DEFAULT_GENDER                   "Male"

According to Oculus, the purpose of this value is for avatar selection. This makes the logic behind the “male” assumption just plain odd. If a user doesn’t specify their gender, they are “male” but if they create a profile they can specify that their gender is “unspecified” by specifying it “unspecified.” It would be much better if the data matched reality. If a user’s gender is actually unspecified it should be set to “unspecified.” Users can choose to leave it that way, or they can choose to specify male or female. I really don’t like having to wonder if data I’m using is real data or not.

But more than bad data, what those default values say to me is that Oculus believes that by default men should have a good experience with the Rift, but for the same level of experience, women should be required to create a profile. This assumption sets up an artificial barrier of entry for women in VR. Not cool.

When I asked Oculus Support about this assumption, I was told that these values are for the "common user" and  "if you are worried about your users having a non-optimal experience, then you should make sure they understand they need to configure the device before usage.”

While I agree that it is absolutely correct that for the best experience users need to set up a profile, it does not change the sexist implication of the current SDK default gender value nor does it change the problem of responding to false data. But, just because the SDK default is sexist, it doesn't mean my software has to be. So, what can I do to work around the SDK default profile setting for gender? Not sure yet what the best solution is, but some ideas are:

Stress the need to create a profile in the product documentation.  This is a  good start, but relying on users to read and follow the documentation, something we all know many users will not do, isn't a complete solution.

Make sure the user has at least been offered the chance to create a personal profile. It is certainly possible to prompt the user with something like “This is the profile being used, do you want to use it or select/create another?” This approach will get people who didn't read and follow the  documentation to create a profile, something we want to do anyway,  but it also means sticking the assumption that the user is male into the face of every women who uses the Rift. I don’t want to be that rude.

Tinker with the SDK and change the defaults. This is an option. But, this approach creates a maintenance issue that will need to be addressed for each update of the SDK.

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