- Freud wrote an essay in 1919 arguing that the origin of the uncanny is the loss of one’s eyes. If you are covering a person’s eyes with an HMD, no wonder it brings up feelings of strangeness.
- Uncanny is an adjective best used to describe something weird or unexpected. It is defined in relation to the familiar or expected.
I’m over the uncanny valley. When I hear people describe a VR experience by saying, “It’s super uncanny valley,” my first response is usually:
People are overgeneralizing and applying this very precise term to any VR experience that they don’t like. It’s like using “epic” for anything that is even mildly interesting, or “interesting” to describe, well, anything. To elevate discussions of VR, I am going to dissect the meaning and use of “uncanny” in the context of current experiences, so people can confidently describe their subjective experiences of VR & AR with a richer vocabulary.
Let’s Get Freudian
"The Uncanny” is an essay from 1919, written by Sigmund Freud. While most of Freud’s work has been discredited, this essay remains relevant to VR creators who are making new experiences. The first third of the essay describes what uncanny means in terms of aesthetics and psychology. He states that the uncanny is the aesthetic of anxiety and fear, rather than the aesthetic of beauty.
Freud (being who he is) argues that the origin of the feeling of uncanny is a revival of repressed infantile memories or the return of primitive beliefs of the human species. He also spends a long time giving a psychoanalytic perspective on a story from 1817 called “The Sandman” wherein a man who was traumatized in childhood by almost having his eyes removed falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a doll with unusual eyes. At some point he sees the doll’s eyes on the floor, loses it, and is committed for insanity. Freud believes that the origin of uncanny is the loss of one’s eyes. What does this mean for someone creating for an HMD?
The uncanny has to do with our feelings of what is familiar. Digging into the German words of heimlich (canny/homey) and unheimlich (uncanny/unhomey), you find distinct meanings:
1. belonging to the house; friendly; familiar; tame (as in animals); intimate, comfortable; i.e: secure, domestic(ated), hospitable.
2. concealed, secret, withheld from sight and from others; secretive, deceitful = private.
1. unhomey, unfamiliar, untame, uncomfortable = eerie, weird, etc.
2. unconcealed, unsecret; what is made known; what is supposed to be kept secret but is inadvertently revealed. (BTW - This would be related to a Freudian slip, saying something accidentally that reveals a hidden truth).
For good measure, I’ll include the Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions of uncanny:
1. seeming to have a supernatural character or origin : eerie, mysterious
2. being beyond what is normal or expected : suggesting superhuman or supernatural power
Given these definitions of uncanny, I believe that most of the time that people use the phrase “uncanny valley,” they likely mean uncanny. They want an adjective to describe something unfamiliar, eerie, or unexpected. In my next post, I’ll write about the meaning and use of the term Uncanny Valley, coined by a robotics professor in Japan in 1970. Until then, feel free to use “inconceivable” as your general VR adjective.
Takeaways for designers
- Uncanny is an adjective best used to describe something weird or unexpected. It’s about the relationship to something familiar or expected.
- If you don’t want your VR experience to feel quite so uncanny, amp up the heimlich elements of your experience. What can you do to make it more familiar, tame, or hospitable?
- With current devices, you lose sight of your own surroundings, plus you cannot see the eyes of others, or what they are looking at. If Freud was right and the loss of eyes is the source of the uncanny, we might have to resign ourselves to VR being perceived as uncanny for the near future.
Freud, S. (1919). The uncanny.
Lecture Notes on Freud’s The uncanny. University of Washington.
H/T to German scholar Elizabeth Bridges who pointed me to Freud’s essay and patiently answered my questions. You can find her writing on the Uncanny Valley here.