How to Battle Zoom Fatigue

How video chat entered the uncanny valley of sociality in the pandemic

Photo: Fiordaliso/Getty Images

A new research paper from Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, and his team looks at Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective. They narrowed it down to four main factors: 1) excessive eye contact, 2) constantly seeing oneself on video, 3) reduction of mobility (because of a need to stay in the frame), and 4) cognitive load.

Most intriguing is what Bailenson and his colleagues call the ZEF scale, or the Zoom exhaustion and fatigue scale, which includes questions like “How irritated do your eyes feel after videoconferencing?” and “How much do you tend to avoid social situations after videoconferencing?” In the extremely online pandemic era, those of us who rely on video chat to do our jobs are likely all too familiar with these particular feelings and emotions.

The concept of the uncanny valley is helpful here. Developed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, the idea is that the more human a robot or artificial thing looks and acts, the more approachable it is—up to a point. After that, it drops sharply into what Mori called the uncanny valley, where we start to get uncomfortable.

Here’s an example from Scientific American:

When Pixar screened a computer-animated short film called “Tin Toy” in 1988, test audiences hated the sight of the pseudo-realistic baby named “Billy” who terrorized the toys. Such a strong reaction persuaded Pixar to avoid making uncannily realistic human characters — it has since focused its efforts on films about living toys, curious robots and talking cars to win Academy Awards and moviegoers’ hearts.

The context of the pandemic has, I think, turned video chat into an uncanny valley experience because we have limited other forms of sociality right now. Video chat feels so close to hanging out with others, but isn’t quite the same for some of the reasons that the researchers identified. Paradoxically, even while it’s a salve for the missing social experiences in our lives right now, video chat also exhausts us more quickly than if we were hanging out in person. Bailenson might agree: In a Wired article last year, he pointed out that something like eye contact, which usually contains so many rich signals, gets compressed and decontextualized in video, where cameras are often situated above the screen.

Bailenson’s team makes a few key recommendations, like reducing the size of the Zoom window and using the “hide self-view” button after ensuring the frame of the video chat is good. I see a lot of these techniques as reducing the uncanny valley effect and bringing video chat a little further away from trying to mimic the in-person social experience too closely. Instead, they’re doing for video communication what Pixar did with robotics and animation: making it sufficiently different from offline socializing so it becomes more attractive and familiar.

I’ve developed a few tips of my own for getting video chat out of the uncanny valley:

  1. Embrace audio, but say hi briefly on video. This one is obvious — just avoid video chat altogether. As I wrote recently about Clubhouse, an audio-only social network, “If Zoom and Slack are where we spend our working days, Clubhouse is like hitting up the bar after work. It’s the bar, the meetup, the networking event, the party, all wrapped up into one.” But I do miss my friends’ faces. So, on Zoom calls, I will often say hello for a bit on video and then politely ask, “Is it okay to go to audio now?”
  2. Decentralize video from the chat experience. One of the challenges with Zoom is that it’s hard to look at the camera all the time. Instead of shutting it all off, I just make sure the video chat is not the focus of attention. At work, for example, I put video chat on my phone while looking at documents on my monitor. When hanging out with friends, I’ll set down my video chat device—whether that’s a tablet, phone, or computer—and talk while cooking.
  3. Blue light filter glasses. Yep, they’ve helped me a lot. So has toning down monitor brightness and turning up the brightness of my home office (to decrease the contrast between the ambient light and the light from my monitor). Backlit screens do a number on my eyes and, by extension, tire me out.

I think video chat has been a blessing in a time of distancing. In the before times, it was also an essential tool for connecting with people around the world. The human element of seeing someone’s face while talking to them has been the stuff of scientific fiction until only relatively recently, and it’s still pretty magical. But it helps to do what we can to make it less exhausting.

author and technologist. words and commentary in ny times, bbc, atlantic, hyperallergic, etc. meedan. opinions my own.

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