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Do larger screens help women with 3D tasks?

These days, most cognitive and visual scientists agree that men and women have slightly different ways of orienting themselves spatially. Typically, people smugly interpret these scientific findings as concluding that “women can’t find their way around as well as men.” The real question is much more contextual, and less value-laden. Talk to any cognitive scientist in this area, and they’ll tell you that it all depends on the situation. Most, but not all women, navigate best by relying on known landmarks; most, but not all men, navigate best by creating a geometric-style map of the area to work from.

But this research has, over the years, allowed essentialist creeps to say all manner of bonkers crap about what women can and can’t do. They can’t park cars, they get lost, woof woof, meow meow. Like most evolutionary arguments, this founders on the fact that these differences between men and women are sufficiently marginal that you don’t notice them unless you study them closely in a laboratory setting. In everyday life, we all drive cars more or less fine; talking on a mobile phone has an infinitely bigger effect on your cognitive spatial ability than your sex, quite frankly.

But the one area where these spatial differences do become significant is in the rapidly-evolving world of 3D computer environments. Women, in studies, have shown to be slightly worse off than men at navigating them.

Mary Czerwinski, a psychologist in Microsoft’s research lab, got interested in this, and did some research into how and why this happens. Her conclusion is that it’s not 3D environments per se that are difficult for women. It’s the display screens. To quote a story in the New Scientist:

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.

This a really cool finding, because it’s such a neat gloss on these weird assumptions about “what women can’t and can’t do”. When you look at things in the light of Czerwinski’s findings, you realize that the problem with 3D environments is one of interface. They’ve been designed in a way that works well for men, probably because they’ve been designed mostly by men. And it’s these design decisions that amplify the otherwise-small differences between men and women’s cognitive styles.

This sounds all very theoretical, but it’s a huge, huge, huge deal when it comes to industries like the military or aerospace. After all, these are areas that rely increasingly on 3D representations of reality. If the tools of representation are biased towards men, it’s another — admittedly small, but significant — reason you find comparatively fewer women in these areas.

Mind you, this is my bloated political analysis, not Czerwinski’s. You can read her entire paper here, to get the straight goods. While you’re at it, you should check out some of her other work at her web site at Microsoft. She’s done some really fun stuff looking into the social impact of technologies — including instant messaging, a topic I interviewed her about a few years ago for a story.

Her findings? Instant messaging wrecks your concentration at work. No surprise there … except that, as it turns out, not all interruptions are equal. If you’re working on a task that requires visual pattern-spotting — like, say, scanning an Excel spreadsheet — then flipping back and forth into instant messaging will massively hurt your ability to work well. But when you’re doing semantic work — like analysing a text or thinking about a problem — instant messaging doesn’t hurt as much; if the messages coming in are related to your work, it can even help. This stuff rules: Check out the paper here for yourself!

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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