Uncanny Telepresence

by tommy.rousse

A video demonstrating Minecraft’s “Quake Pro” Field of View (FOV).

Over the last few weeks, I’ve experienced a strange phenomena I propose identifying as “uncanny telepresence.”  If Marvin Minsky’s telepresence is the experience of “being there,” uncanny telepresence is the experience of “not quite being there.”  It designates cognitive dissonance experienced by the player due to sensory feedback from the virtual environment that nearly replicates reality but falls short in an unsettling manner.

The concept is an adaptation & extension of Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley,1 a hypothetical trough in a diagram of human likeness & familiarity that reflects an inherent revulsion for near-human representations.  In electronic games, it is frequently applied to the facial expressions and skin tone of human avatars.2

Mori's representation of the uncanny valley. Thanks Wikimedia!

If we consider the uncanny valley to be primarily a failure of representation, we may think of uncanny telepresence as a failure of simulation.  On some sensual axis, the fidelity of incorporation in the virtual space breaks out of abstraction and simplification to approach similarity, but before reaching verisimilitude, flounders in an eerie experiential purgatory of a flawed embodiment.

I have had problems with uncanny presence in weird correlation between field of vision and spatial representation in virtual worlds.  Most unsettling  is the feeling of parallax created by the default field of vision in  three games I have played recently: Proteus, Minecraft, & Dear Esther.  This may be due in large part to switching to a gamepad and sitting further back from the screen.  While I loved Proteus, by the time I completed one season-cycle I was about ready to yack.  Besides parallax issues, the viewpoint seems too low to the ground: sometimes I felt like a giant head crawling across the ground.  In Dear Esther‘s default view, looking rapidly from sea to shore had me reaching for the Dramamine®.  I don’t have any prior history with “simulation sickness”—I would say simulation sickness is one manifestation of uncanny telepresence.3

It’s possible for other sensory apparatus to manifest uncanny telepresence.  The uneven sounds of footsteps in many role-playing games provides an auditory example.  Apparently wary of a monotonous canter, sounds designers in many games have inserted footy stomps at uneven intervals, giving the impression of embodying an avatar with an odd number of legs.  Frequently uncanny telepresence is caused by a discrepancy  between two senses, such as the sound of footsteps implying a gate too fast for the slight head-bob built into the first-person perspective.

If we accept Yee et al.’s work on the Proteus effect, i.e. that user’s behavior is affected by their representation within a virtual environment, can uncanny telepresence be used to more accurately invoke emotions of unease and fear in virtual worlds?

  1. I would like to further explore Freud’s treatment of the Uncanny in future  work.
  2. SeeThe Undead Zone” by Clive Thompson.
  3. For more on simulator sickness, see Kolasinski’s 1996 dissertation.