Welcome to the Uncanny Valley

Time for some mood music.


So, there is this thing called the uncanny valley. It is the eerie phenomenon that occurs when robots become very close to their human counterparts (but are not indistinguishable). Wired   magazine is where I first heard about it via this diagram:

Things that are actually human and clearly not human are fine. It is where they may look, smell, taste, sound, or feel (almost) that our senses start tingling. 

Of course the uncanny extends beyond our engineered company. As we mentioned in passing, Freud (my least favorite psychologist for a variety of reasons) wrote an essay entitled “The Uncanny” which does an excellent job of describing what the uncanny actually is. He defined it as, ” That class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

Wikipedia has this to say:

Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize.

I attempted to embody the uncanny in my art museum in a suburban neighborhood. It is very clearly [not] a house. It is familiar, every child has drawn it, but at the same time it is completely unknown and foreign.

Volumetric Model

It is like a childhood memory of a house long forgotten.

This is Repliee Q2

File:Repliee Q2.jpg

it is an actroid which looks very much like a human. It falls deep in the pit of the uncanny valley and is too real to be understood as a robot and not real enough to be human.

On the other hand there are characters like this which are clearly not human, yet manage to exhibit an extraordinarily precise emotion. This little robot-man is quite sad and relatable.

I, personally, like things that are uncanny but that is probably just a weird fetish (hence why I designed the most tastefully creepy art museum I could). Perhaps we are slowly desensitizing ourselves to the fear typically developed under uncanny circumstances because everything is so uncanny that we would just live in fear otherwise. If someone visited the future from 100 years ago they would probably just become comatose, not due to shock, but due to fear.

Photo Mar 28, 1 38 35 AM

We have talked about manipulating time frames with comics, augmented reality, and life streaming. People the world round can discover all sorts of things about me through google, facebook, twitter, and this very blog. I am feeding my thoughts and data freely to the world. When people I don’t know very well wish me a happy birthday because it is on facebook (I’m not going to lie) I get a bit creeped out. I even had somebody who I didn’t know wish me a happy birthday in person once. 

We are steadily marching towards an uncanny future. Our memex devices know where we are, what we like, when we need to do things and be places. This is very disconcerting for some people (like the old ones and the anarchists) who are very frightened of things that get too close to their thoughts and mess with their perception of the world.

It Knows!



About Adam

I am an architecture undergrad @ Virginia Tech with an interest in emergent and interactive design.
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