An interview with Nora Schumann, VR researcher

Within HumaniVR and in its neighbourhood, several young scholars are currently developing and executing highly innovative and interesting research projects in the Humanities using VR apps and hardware. This blog has had the opportunity to interview some of them about their aims and goals, and their personal take on the impacts of VR. Today: Nora Schumann, expert on Intercultural Communication and Gender Studies, who recently completed her M.A. thesis at the University of Hildesheim.

HumaniVR: Hi Nora, thank you for taking the time for this interview. What is the name of your research project?

Nora Schumann: It’s “(Un)doing Gender in Virtual Reality”

HumaniVR: Can you please describe your research project in a few sentences?

Nora: I am guided by the theory of doing gender, which roughly speaking assumes that the “social” gender is not something that one “has”, but something that one “does” and that is reproduced again and again in the interaction with others. One of the ways in which we assign a gender to others is by first classifying the other person into “sex categories” on the basis of external characteristics. I am investigating which characteristics of the sex categories can be manipulated in virtual reality (VR) and which effects the manipulation has on the perception of the counterpart and on one’s own behaviour in relation to gender (re)production. 

HumaniVR: What would you like to find out?

Nora: I am interested in the effects of manipulating the characteristics of sex categories, which characteristics play a dominant role in the assignment for us in virtual reality and whether these differ from characteristics of the “real” world. I would like to find out whether, and if so, how it is possible to design a human-like avatar that is not directly gendered by the players and what possibilities arise from the design.

HumaniVR: What was your personal motivation for this project?

Nora: I would like to create more sensitivity for the fact that in our everyday interactions, we immediately assign a sex category to our counterparts most of the time, along with all the stereotyping and attributions that unconsciously go along with it. Stereotyping and categorisation make it easier for our brains to work, but in my view, they make us less free and, coupled with power relations, lead to structural inequality and discrimination.

HumaniVR: What role do the peculiarities/characteristics of VR (as opposed to other possible media or technologies) play in your research?

Nora: It is difficult or impossible to escape the “real” body and its perception by others. VR offers the possibility to influence physical characteristics and thus the perception of us by others relatively easily – for researchers also in a controllable setting. The sense of embodiment can lead to a very strong, personal experience. VR thus offers the chance to take social and cultural science and gender theories out of their academic “ivory towers” and make them practically accessible and physically tangible to a larger group of people. In my opinion, this new form of science communication is a great opportunity and an important task for researchers. I see great potential here for further research that deals with discrimination based on other physical characteristics (racism, ableism, etc.).

HumaniVR: Thank you, Nora, for this interview.

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