Cross Cultural perceptions of the Internet and virtual reality
Copyright is held by the author/owner(s).
WWW2002, May 7-11, 2002, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.
WWW2002 ISBN 1-880672-20-0

Cross cultural perceptions of the Internet and Virtual Reality

Dr Ashley Tucker
Informatics Institute of IT
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, UK
+44 0115 9514210
ashley.tucker@nottingham.ac.uk
Miss Sarah F. Younis
Information Technology Institute
241 El-Haram Street
El-Giza, Egypt
+2 02 3868420
Dr Tarek Shalaby
Informatics Institute of IT
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, UK
+44 0115 9515544
tarek.shalaby@nottingham.ac.uk

ABSTRACT

The continual expansion of computing technology into our workplaces and homes in the past 15-20 years is widely acknowledged. However, what distinguishes the growth of the past 2-3 years is the uptake of networking technology, which has been prompted largely by the development and popularity of the World Wide Web. This has allowed companies and individuals to create multimedia presentations of information and make them available to a potentially worldwide market. In addition, the advantages of e-mail and electronic file transfer are becoming more widely accepted leading to wider connection to the Internet and the application of Internet technologies in private company intranets. As Internet connection becomes more widespread and at greater speeds, the potential to use computer graphics and virtual reality to enhance both commercial and personal web sites becomes more feasible. Indeed the British Government recently promised that over the next few years it would strive to make the Internet accessible to almost all the United Kingdom population [12].

However, it has been found that different cultures have their own way of perceiving and handling the concept of the Internet, and in particular, virtual reality models. Many elements in the societal environment surrounding each user affect the way they deal and perceive virtual reality, and to tailor each virtual reality model or website for different intended audiences would be very costly from a business point of view. Knowing the background and history of the country, the demands of each culture, the perception criteria for existing cultures and, most important, the unified criteria for all cultures would be very helpful when creating virtual reality based websites and would hopefully lead to adapted models, which can be perceived equally by any culture.

This paper looks at two different cultures, the Arab world, focusing on Egypt, and the Western culture, focusing on the United Kingdom. Investigations were undertaken into the state of the Internet, and into the perceptions of virtual reality models across both cultures and conclusions drawn about the achievability of unified criteria that suits and can be applied to all cultures when designing virtual reality based content for the Internet.

Keywords

Virtual Reality, Culture, Egypt, United Kingdom, Internet, Computer Graphics

1. INTRODUCTION

The Internet is one of the key developments in the growth of globalisation in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Globalisation has changed the nature of national governments, imposing national and international culture on local culture and promising to regulate economies. However, it has also widened the gap between many nations and alienated those that do not abide by this new world order.

Furthermore, high-tech multimedia and virtual reality has arrived, compelling economists, politicians, lawyers, bankers, engineers and scientists to re-think and re-engineer work methods, policies, laws, and standards.

Three years after the beginning of the WWW there were no Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the Arab world Public Internet access started in 1995 with entry of Bahrain, Kuwait and Iran, and then Iran was the first Arab country to become a member of an international computer network, BITNET in 1992. Other countries, such as Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia banned the Internet but found people were connecting to ISPs in neighbouring countries instead.

Today only Iraq with its demobilised communication systems and grave internal difficulties remains outside the Info super highway.

There is strict control over the Internet, and most Arab countries use governmental gateways to connect to the www, allowing a national proxy filtering systems to get rid of unwanted political, religious and obscene material. The exact form of control varies from country to country but usually the military, religious authorities, hereditary monarchies or other oligarchic sources control the communication systems.

In contrast, it is thought that over half of the population in the United Kingdom have accessed the Internet. There is very little in the way of content control, and the British Government recently promised that over the next few years it would strive to make the Internet accessible to almost all the United Kingdom population [1].

However, the policy of "internet-for-everything" does have a number of significant disadvantages. The government and businesses in general are spending large amounts of money to make their Internet presence secure, but at the same time exposing themselves to more cyber-attacks by trying to make more services accessible through the Internet.

A survey by Which Online discovered that in the United Kingdom, over 60% of adults feel the Internet has become part of everyday life and a survey by Jupiter 2001 found that 20% of users account for 70% of Internet usage [1]. These statistics show us that there is a huge divide between the east and west or developing and developed countries when it comes to information technology issues.

In the context of this paper, the term 'Computer Graphics' refers to a set of computer applications that can be used to produce images and animations, most of which would have been impossible only a few years ago. To produce high-resolution computer graphics, a three-dimensional geometry is defined using conventional Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. A range of texture maps is then applied to the solid three-dimensional CAD objects (texture maps are the computer graphics equivalent of applying patterned wallpaper over an object). Lighting conditions are then defined and objects are viewed from a range of different camera positions.

The term ‘Virtual Reality’, as used in this paper, can be defined as a set of hardware and software tools that allows the realistic simulation of an interaction with virtual objects, which are computer models of real objects.

In contrast with static three-dimensional images from CAD systems, virtual reality models allow the user to interact with the world. Such systems can produce high degrees of realism with smooth motion and stereo/surround sound capabilities all adding to the value of the models.

Frequently we take an existing object, whose size can range, from a molecule to that of a planet, and we create a virtual version. Nevertheless, it is also possible to reverse the concept, and use virtual reality to materialise an idea. For example, an architect or an engineer will be able to display on their computer, a project of a building or a mechanical part and to interact with this virtual prototype.

The rapid developments in PC technology in recent years and constantly falling prices have allowed virtual reality to be accessible to most users. Whilst much development is in the leisure industry, there are real engineering based opportunities that can be exploited. Hence, the argument that virtual reality is an expensive technology no longer holds and the opportunity for mass use of virtual reality opens up, as unit costs drop dramatically.

It was found from the results of this research that virtual reality is becoming widely accepted in the western world as a high-technology visualisation tool. However perceptions in the Arab world were very different with most people outside of the scientific community having never heard of the technology.

2. INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY IN THE ARAB WORLD

Just a few years ago the majority of Arabic speakers were without access to the Internet, but once this started to change a major problem was discovered. Arabic text, due to its hieroglyphic nature, had to be rendered as graphics, creating extremely complex and slow to load pages. Over the past several years both Microsoft and an Egyptian company, Sakhr Software, have been working to remedy this problem [11]. The release of Arabic Office 97 by Microsoft in May 1998 and the well-established Sindbad browser by Sakhr have made surfing the net in Arabic a reality. At this point in time there are still few sites totally in Arabic, but recent developments, and advances in communication technology should change this situation.

Statistics, as shown in Table 1, provided by a web site named the 'middle east directory' show the estimated number of web sites for a number of Arab countries. It can be seen from these figures that Egypt hosts many more web sites than any other Middle Eastern country. It is one of the more developed countries, and for these two reasons provides some valid data that can be used as a comparison to the United Kingdom.

Country Estimated number of web-sites
Egypt 1710
Bahrain 990
Iraq 90
Iran 450
Kuwait 900
Saudi Arabia 450
Syria 270
Table 1: Web sites in Arab countries [6]

2.1 Focus on the Internet in Egypt

There is more information available about the state of the Internet in Egypt than any other Middle Eastern country. A well-established educational link between the University of Nottingham and the Institute of Information Technology (iTi) in Egypt also provides a good facility for information transfer and case-studies. For these reasons it was decided to focus on Egypt as a case-study country for this paper.

The Internet services started in Egypt in October 1993 via a 9.6 Kilobyte link between the Egyptian Universities Network and the Cabinet Information & Decision Support Center (IDSC) and France carrying the BITNET as well as the Internet traffic. Egypt Telecom: the Arab Republic of Egypt National Telecommunication Organization (ARENTO) provided the basic infrastructure and it was estimated there were about 2000 - 3000 users at that time.

In 1994, the Egyptian domain split into four major sub-domains as shown in Figure 1:

The Egyptian IT domain

Figure 1. Internet Gateways in Egypt, adapted from [3]

1) The Egyptian Universities Networks (academic sub-domain .eun.eg) - provides the services for the universities and schools

2) Sub-domain .sci.eg serves the scientific research institutes at the Academy of Scientific Research via Enstinet as well as other research centres like the National Telecommunication Institute

3) The governmental sub-domain, .gov.eg, receives service via IDSC and is for the governmental authorities and organizations

4) The commercial sub-domain .com.eg receives service via the Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Centre (RITSEC), an international project hosted by the Egyptian cabinet.

Beginning in November of 1995, IDSC/RITSEC started to provide connectivity to private service providers under the .com.eg domain.

The government has remained involved in all phases of the process; represented by IDSC/RITSEC and Egypt Telecom, and has begun an initiative for the development of an internet backbone and gateway facility allowing connectivity with reasonable prices, to be used by private sector ISPs.

The Internet Society of Egypt is appreciative of the governmental role, noting on their web page:

"The catalytic role of the government will continue to support the newly established ISP to establish a strong industry for value added information services in the country and to promote the tourism, the culture, and the various economic activities in Egypt as a base for socio-economic development." [3]

The Egyptian Internet community remains one of the largest and most vital to the Middle East. Companies like Sakhr software have been at the forefront, developing Internet applications in Arabic, and while the majority of current WWW sites are still in English, new developments with Arabic based Web browsers should help fuel the growth of Arabic websites.

As one of the earliest Arab countries to go online, Egypt quickly realized the enormous potential of this new communication medium. Current estimates put the number of Egyptians online at over 70,000 [6], using around 40 ISPs [3], with websites covering a wide spectrum from small to large businesses; government departments; international organizations; and academia. However this only represents around 0.1 percent of the total Egyptian population of 70 million.

2.2 Barriers of using the Internet in Egypt

As the Internet is still in it's infancy in Egypt, the average cost of Internet dialup access is around $20 per month in Cairo (down from around $100/month in 1996). Access costs can be two or three times higher than this, outside Greater Cairo. These costs, plus the initial cost of computer hardware and software, put the Internet well outside the reach of the general public, especially in rural areas and outside major cities.

Outside of the scientific and technical community in Egypt, there is a serious lack of computer literacy. Limited awareness of modern technology, few skilled professionals, and a scarcity of local information content all serve as barriers preventing the widespread acceptance of the 'net'. Despite advances in software, language and cultural barriers are still important and provide one of the major obstacles in developing cross-cultural applications or technology.

However the situation is gradually improving with the emergence of e-learning and virtual learning technologies, and the increasing availability of international studying. The University of Nottingham has a pioneering cross-cultural computer science MSc course, where the students spend nine months studying in Egypt and then three months in the United Kingdom. This type of program benefits the students by exposing them to cultural and technological experiences that would otherwise be unavailable. The students then return to their home country and can help disseminate the information they have gleaned from the foreign institution, and apply their new skills in their home environment

3. INTERNET TECHNOLOGY IN THE WEST

The Internet was first conceived as a military communications network, named ARPANET, by the United States Department of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

in 1967. The World Wide Web (WWW) was also born in the West after the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) accepted Tim Berners-Lee's proposal for a hypertext system in 1990.

Therefore, the roots of the Internet and WWW are well established in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, which have some of the most advanced and well-developed networks in the world.

Due to the advanced nature of the Internet in the United Kingdom, this country was selected as the comparison to the developing Internet in Egypt.

The Internet Software Consortium holds an up-to-date list of the Internet hosts for each country, and Table 2, shows the number of hosts or actual machines on each of the top-level domains.

However, the company acknowledges that there may be errors in the data. "We consider the numbers presented in the domain survey to be fairly good estimates of the minimum size of the Internet. We can not tell if there are hosts or domains we could not locate" [4]. These figures may also not be correct for each country as there is not necessarily any correlation between a host's domain name and where it is actually located. A host with a .eg domain name could easily be located in the United States or any other country, and in addition, hosts under domains such as .com, .net or .edu could be located anywhere. However this table does show us that even with errors Egypt has 0.005 percent of the worlds hosts, compared to the United Kingdom's 2%.

Rank Domain Number of hosts Name or Country
Total   109574429  
1 com 36352243
Commercial
2 net 30885116
Networks
3 edu 7106062
Educational
4 jp 4640863
Japan
5 ca 2364014
Canada
6 uk 2291369
United Kingdom
7 us 2267089
United States
77 pk 6467 Pakistan
78 eg 5848 Egypt
79 lb 5611 Lebanon
251 yt 0 Mayotte
252 zr 0 Zaire
Table 2 - Distribution of Top-Level Domain Names by Host Count [4]

3.1 Focus on the Internet in the United Kingdom

In comparison to 0.1 percent of the Egyptian population being online, around 33 million United Kingdom residents, more than half the total United Kingdom population, have accessed the Internet in the last year [8]. Of these, 60% connect from home and 33% connect from work.

Unlike many Arab countries, which solely have computer connections to the Internet, there are a number of ways to utilise the Internet in western countries. These can include digital television services, mobile phones, personal desktop assistants (PDAs), and, more recently, domestic appliances such as microwave ovens and fridges with built in Internet connections. However, in the United Kingdom, computers continue to dominate as the preferred method of accessing the Internet. Ninety eight per cent of individuals who used the Internet for personal use had done so using a computer. By July 2001, 8 per cent of adults who had ever used the Internet reported they had done so using a phone, while those using Digital TV remained steady at around six per cent [7].

In a news article dated the 10th March 2000, an internet surveying and studying company, NUA.com, suggests that there are over 1 billion web pages on the Internet, and over 87% of them are in English [9]. This is mainly due to the lack of infrastructure and knowledge available in many countries, because it is now possible to register domain names in over 350 languages which covers over 80% of the world's population [10].

Internet connectivity is very accessible in the United Kingdom with prices for access dropping almost every month. There is a wide range of available packages ranging from just simply paying for every phone call/modem call at a low rate, through paying a set monthly fee and receiving free Internet access, to the more expensive, but faster, broadband connection. It is this easy access and daily exposure to advertising and new technologies that allows over half of the United Kingdom population to have access to the Internet.

3.2 Barriers of using the Internet in the United Kingdom

There are not many technical barriers preventing people from gaining access to the Internet in the United Kingdom. Computer availability increases and prices continue to fall every year, Internet service providers are reducing costs due to stiff competition and education is becoming more computer based and technology orientated.

The only real barrier is for the 35 year old and upwards age bracket. These people were not exposed to this equipment in their younger learning years, and are now wary of the new technology. Many people have difficulty understanding the concept of the Internet, and others have no interest in something they have done without for 35 or more years.

The only way to change this is education and advertising. The new generation are almost brought up with computers and the Internet, and new advances in equipment such as the LG Internet fridge or other computer controlled domestic appliances all serve to increase their dependence on technology.

4. PERCEPTIONS OF VIRTUAL REALITY

In order to understand the perceptions of virtual reality in different countries it was necessary to undertake a study into the background and knowledge of a section of the population. A sample of students was chosen, with the same number from Egypt and the United Kingdom. They were all in the same age bracket, 18 to 30, and all had a background in computer science. It was thought that these would be the people most likely to have experienced, or heard of virtual reality and therefore averages for the remainder of the countries would be far lower.

The participants were asked a series of questions on their experience and prior knowledge, and then asked to navigate and utilise a pair of web-sites that had been created, one with virtual reality content and the other with static pictures and text. The sites were created as e-commerce sites, with one incorporating virtual reality models of products and the other simply having digital photographs of the products, such as shown in Figure 2. This allowed the participants to understand some of the basic potentials and advantages of using virtual reality models, such as looking at a product from all sides, changing the colours and textures of fabrics and adding or removing extra features such as wheels, cushions or feet.

static 3D image vr image


Figure 2 - Using still images or virtual models of products

From the preliminary questions, one of the first differences highlighted, was that more than half of the United Kingdom participants had used the Internet for shopping, compared to under one third of the Egyptian students. When shopping on the Internet, over 40% of both United Kingdom and Egyptian students stated that they needed more details and descriptions of the products.

British respondents to the survey mainly requested that the speed of the shopping sites needed to be faster, they needed easier to use interfaces, better security and more product details. In contrast the Egyptian response was that e-commerce needed to spread wider in their home country as there was a serious lack of e-shopping sites, and they needed local not international sellers as Egyptian people preferred buying home manufactured and distributed products. The Egyptian response also highlighted that most Egyptian people do not hold credit cards, or if they do, the banks do not permit Internet purchasing for security reasons. This poses a great problem for Internet shopping as now, most transactions are done through Visa or MasterCard.

Once the preliminary survey was complete, the students were asked to navigate around the two web sites and then complete a further questionnaire about their experience and their perception of virtual reality in general. More than half of the British respondents welcomed the idea of interactive models of products, whilst the other half were wary of the increased download times, slower 'surfing' speed, and need for higher specification computers. In contrast every one of the Egyptian students expressed an interest in virtual reality models of products, as it was a new and exciting technology that had not been seen before, but it is thought that no previous exposure to the technology meant that they had no knowledge about the potential technical limitations.

What was highlighted by this study is that the British respondents had heard of, and seen virtual reality in action in mainstream cinema movies, television advertising and marketing and were keen for it to become a more utilised technology in day-to-day life. In contrast to the Egyptian students it was a very novel technology as there was no exposure in Egypt and this meant they would welcome the technology with open arms despite some potential technical limitations. This study focussed on postgraduate computer science students so all participants had been exposed to information technology for at least three years. These are the most likely section of the population to have been exposed to virtual reality, so it could be assumed that in Egypt there is very limited, if not no education in advanced forms of information technology such as virtual reality.

5. SOCIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ISSUES

A number of differences have been identified between Western and Arabian cultures, but there are also a number of problems that are common to both. Diffusion of the benefits and opportunities associated with new technologies, such as the Internet or virtual reality are limited by the following common cross-cultural factors.
Trusting new technology
Although it is gradually subsiding with increasing education, advertising and knowledge distribution, the lack of trust in electronic equipment, data and items 'you cannot see' continues to be a worldwide deterrent towards the Internet and in particular, e-commerce. Countries such as Egypt are often cash, not plastic, based, lack the skills and equipment needed to create secure Internet sites, and lag behind in this issue of trust, which is still a strong deterrent to making payments over the Internet. It is thought that the younger generations are happy with Internet purchasing but are held back by the government and banks who are still wary of the technology and are restricting the public's access to these services.
Technological limitations
As new technology is released and large corporations utilise this software and hardware, many people get left behind and are stuck with old or insufficient machines incapable or running the new software. A computer is still a major purchase for most people who cannot then afford to upgrade or change machines every six months. This is especially the case in Egypt where the average wages do not permit many people to buy and maintain appropriate computer hardware and software. The comparative survey of computer science students highlighted that over half of the British respondents owned a Pentium II or III computer, whilst most of the Egyptian students did not own a machine, and only had access to Pentium I or II machines
Opposition to change
Resistance to change is one of the largest drawbacks in any attempts to bring about technological change. Decision-makers are used to doing business in a certain way and they do not want to change. "Our system is working, so why change it?" is their attitude, which represents a significant hurdle in itself. An example of this is the hands-on, 'haggling' nature of commerce in many Arabian countries, which, as yet, is not possible to successfully re-create on the Internet.
Generation gap
Many, if not most, middle or top managers in Egypt do not use e-mail or e-commerce for the simple reason that they were not raised in the information age. Information technology is not a part of their daily routine, and this fact coupled with their reluctance to invest in new technology and their failure to perceive the added value, leads to a lack of business-orientated technology. This has lead to a serious lack of e-commerce sites, but this situation will gradually change, as middle-aged managers, currently in potential management positions will rise to top-level management in the next decade, and they should be convinced of the benefits of IT and are technologically adept.

6. CONCLUSIONS

It can be deduced from the statistics presented in this paper, and the conclusions of the research undertaken thus far, that the primary deterrent for the growth in numbers of Internet users in Middle Eastern countries, and Egypt in particular, is a lack of individual awareness and education.

It is well documented that computer and scientific education in Egypt and other Arab countries must be extended. Students in most public schools get little or no exposure to computers until they graduate, and even if a school has computer facilities they are always inadequate for the requirements of the new 'wired' generation with old machines and no or slow Internet connections.

It is thought that a major increase in public campaigns, community efforts, advertising and marketing are required for individual awareness development. Associating companies, products and individuals in the media with information technology and the impact of this technology is a vital part of increasing public awareness.

Increasing local and national 'web' content is also a priority. It has been seen that the Arabic content of the web is very minimal, and it is thought that the business community and the government must serve as catalysts for this expansion.

Over the next few years, as technology advances further, more access options, lower access cost, and more computer equipment purchases should continue to drive growth in Internet users within the Arab countries. In the last few years a number of Arab businesses have realised the potential value of a web presence and are now online, with more developing a 'web-presence' each day. As in the west, there was a learning curve during which new users familiarised themselves with this new technology and communication medium, prior to the growth explosion in business websites. Now that business owners in the Arab countries can utilise the technology, present their pages in Arabic, and access a growing Internet audience both at home and abroad, the industry has started to take off.

In countries around the world there are still, and will always be, many common misconceptions and some valid concerns over new technologies, such as the Internet and virtual reality. As those countries where the Internet is most developed, such as the United Kingdom, are now finding out, there are many new issues paralleling the implementation of new technology. Items such as security, pirated software and music, and copyright and plagiarism infringements are just some of the topics under discussion and constant development. In most cases, when the pros and cons are weighed up, the advantages of the Internet are judged to be far superior to the disadvantages, which are in themselves becoming more manageable and reducing in number.

Views that the World Wide Web is difficult to use and only accessible from very expensive computers are being dispelled every day, and we, as users and creators of this technology must continue research to bring the cutting edge technologies into each and every home in a user-friendly and visually stimulating way. Governments, sometimes wary of information access, must appreciate the opportunity to improve the socio-economic situation, which in turn can make such access less threatening. As technological limitations, language barriers and strict regulations become less of a problem, the Arab countries have an opportunity to reap the rewards established by western countries, on the information highway and interact with the global economy and its huge markets via cyberspace.

7. REFERENCES

[1] How big is the Internet - http://www.waller.co.uk/web.htm

[2] Internet Society of Egypt - http://www.ise.org.eg/commerc.htm, 2001

[3] Internet Society of Egypt - http://www.ise.org.eg/gateway.htm, 2001

[4] Internet Software Consortium - http://www.isc.org/ds/WWW-200101/dist-bynum.html, 2001

[5] LG electronics - http://www.lge.com.au/e-plaza/iFridge.asp, 2001

[6] Middle East Directory - http://www.middleeastdirectory.com/cs_egypt.htm, 2001

[7] National Statistics  - Statistics Base - 2001 http://www.statistics.gov.uk/statbase/product.asp?vlnk=7051&B7=View

[8] National Statistics - http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/int0901.pdf, 2001

[9] News 10th Mar 2000 - http://www.nua.ie

[10] News 23rd April 2001- http://www.nua.com/surveys/index.cgi?f=VS&art_id=905356688&rel=true

[11] Sakhr Software - http://www.sakhrsoft.com/products/Sindbad.htm, 2001

[12] Snoddy, R., 2000. Blair set to back calls for lower net fees. The Times, Business News. March 6th 2000.