Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Adventures of Tutter in the Uncanny Valley

While waiting (and waiting and waiting) to be cleared to go back to full-time work, I have been thinking desperately about what to do with this blog. It's easier to write when things are going well, but you've got more to write about when things are going badly, and at the moment things are going well... badly. There's the good, for which I am extremely grateful - going down the pub with friends, meeting my best friend from the coast at the airport later today, going to twilight movies with Sarah last night... but there's also the bad. And as stated, I'm as sick of talking about the bipolar stuff at the moment as everyone else is of hearing it.

So - what to write about? What will people will find interesting, what is something that will resonate emotionally or intellectually with them, what is something that they will want to read?

Well, I'm going to write about what I've been reading about. Most recently I've been reading about fear and the Uncanny Valley. Fear because the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, as HP Lovecraft said.

I'm going to write about fear.
Specifically things that make me frightened that perhaps should not.
Even more specifically, muppets.

Dead set. I don't by any stretch mean a phobia, or a terror, or a fear where I run screaming from the room whenever Tutter

(and isn't that an inherently un-nerving name? Doesn't it evoke "titter", as in to laugh insanely in a padded room, and "tetter", the archaic term for an ulcer, and "totter", to be precariously balanced on the edge of a precipice, on the verge of falling to your death and being dashed to pieces on the rocks below? Plus there's "trotter", the cloven hooves of the Devil Himself?? See? Proof! Proof!!!) -


Not that I run screaming from the room whenever Tutter appears on the television screen. But muppets have always ever so slightly creeped me out, to the extent that I prefer to avert my eyes when they are on the television screen.

I offer no rationale for this. I don't know if it's the unblinking eyes, or the un-naturally high pitched voices, or the un-natural ways in which they move, zipping from one side of the screen to another, or their faces, either inexpressive or too expressive - or the way they move their long ropy arms in that sinister way - but muppets have always struck me as somehow creepy, un-natural, wrong. Unheimlich, as Freud said.

I remember visiting Toby, and we sat in the lounge while his chocolate-advertisement beautiful son watched the Bear in the Big Blue House, and at one stage Tutter went into the walk-in wardrobe and was singing a song, and all of a sudden all the shoes in the cupboard opened their eyes and started singing along. They had big goggly eyes and flappy kind of mouths where the sole comes away from the upper part and they sang and danced about. And, as my niece would say, it weirded me out.

I read up on the whys and wherefores of muppetophobia - there is a community out there, presumably the sworn enemies of the plushies - and the most interesting idea I've read about with has been the idea of the Uncanny Valley.

Basically the Uncanny Valley (and it's only an idea) says that our emotional responses to something non-human change as that non-human something looks more and more human.

Here is the original graph:

An industrial robot, or an egg-whisk, for example, is unlikely to strike anyone as either particularly adorable or particularly repulsive.
A stuffed animal, or a humanoid robot strike people are attractive and interesting in a way that the egg-whisk isn't. The likeable-ness of the object increases as you go from eggwhisk to stuffed animal, like going up a hill.

And things get more and more likeble the more and more lifelike they are... until a certain point. At this point (and different people will have different points at which this happens) the by-now-very-humanlike thing stops being likeable and starts getting creepy.

That's when we get things like those automaton-like shop front dummies, or cinematic zombies, or those remarkably detailed prosthetic limbs. The feelings they excite are not "aww he's cute", but "gaah, he's ghastly". After the hill there's a valley. The creepy looking kid from the "Polar Express" lives smack bang in the middle of the Uncanny Valley.

(There's a whole thing here about how cute things fit in and what makes things cute that I won't get into, the whole big eyes big head baby thing. I remember having a discussion about this with a friend who seemed to have a more highly developed sense of cute than I did, trying to work out what made something cute. We worked out that if you got a normal sized pencil, with a rubber eraser on the end, and sharpened it back to only a few centimetres, that pencil would be cuter than a full sized pencil. Dont' understand cute, never will.)

Theoretically, on the other side of the valley, as something gets more and more humanoid are healthy human beings - and maybe one day, extremely life-like robots - and maybe after that you get idealised human figures (maybe like angels or the Buddha in repose).

Here, by the way, is a damn good book on robots, what the history of the mechanical person is, why they evoke the feelings they do in us. And remarkablew historical detail - mechanical ducks and flute-playing robots of the Restoration period, that kind of thing.

Now I don't know about this Uncanny Valley theory. I can see the evolutionary advantage of it - it maybe stops you breeding with the genetically unfit, or with other, closely related species like Neanderthals, and so on. But I don't know it is necessary, and I don't know that it's proved, or even that it's useful except as an interesting thought, but it is interesting. And I think there is some molecular evidence of Neanderthal-Homo sapiens interbreeding, not that that necessarily implies a lack for revulsion.

And it does explain why Tutter and his polyester-spawned ilk are so damn creepy.

Anyway - have to rest my googly eyes from staring unwinking at the screen, brush the lint from my furry and strangely tubular body and zip off to bed, all the time singing in a weirdly high-pitched voice*.

Thanks for listening. Only two weeks until I can start at the ICU, God willing.

*This was much funnier when Toby said it.


Blogger Dr Dork said...

Oh dear.

Nightmares about Gelflings tonight..

I like the Uncanny Valley theory. Gives a rationale as to why cheesy humanoid Dr Who villians creep me out, personally, far more than big-budget alien monstrosities.

Kind regards

12:10 AM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

How do patients in Oz have even a hope of getting decent treatment if you are unavailable. I am rescheduling all (fictitious) planned trips to the antipodes until you are back in medical rotation. Better for my health and everyone elses.

And yes, I long to strangle a muppet. Elmo is top of the list. (Probably because I have a two-year old.)

2:26 PM  
Blogger Benedict 16th said...

1) BJ - I think your fear of these things is related back to the Furby!

2) Foilest - Barney - Do you love him like he loves you, if ever I could murder in cold blood* it would be that fucking purple dinosaur!

3) Foilest - only if you need emergency or drugs and alcohol care, I would hope I might suggest someone else to be your "family physician" - humphhhh **

4) BJ there is several bottles of red with your name on them.....
and maybe an alcopop or 3 for Sarah (bring some cats - I am trying to "con"vince missus Benedict that the kids need a kitten each (Mr Destructo needs a black cat, the Beniette prefers but is not bound to have a white one), SHMBO is still firmly resisting my charms and hints about the kids and need for kittens (young and not scaredy cats - unlike Porché)

* well technically dinosaurs are reptiles and technically they are cold-blooded...

** sulky male type noises (just aks Cookie)

*** SWMBO - She who must be obeyed

1:51 AM  
Blogger Bronze John said...

Hail Dr Dork,
For me it was the Autons - plastic shop dummies that came to life. Sarah read the book and reckons it haunted her for years. And Gelflings - you're right about them.


9:42 AM  
Blogger Bronze John said...

Hail FW,
Feel free to strangle a muppet for me - I'll write you a sick note.

Sarah and I are half-arsedly planning a trip to the podes in 2008 - you may be getting a visitor. Finances and everything else permitting.


9:51 AM  
Blogger Bronze John said...

I don't know, Barney's a big guy. And he's a dinosaur - aren't some of them meant to be dangerous? Do as I am doing and start off with the inoffensive ones - Sherlock Hemlock is next on my list.

Wine may have to wait a bit, sorry. Maybe you could cellar it.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

Dr. John: I have enjoyed meeting everyone I have met so far through blogging (Cookie, Champurrado, Prom) and don't anticipate that changing. Sarah and you are welcome at the FoilFlat and in My Fair City any time. Finances permitting, yeh. And meh. Finances. That's a four letter word, really. I hate finances. Why can't financial troubles ease up when everything else is busy screwing the pooch? Huh?

Also, dinosaurs really were not dangerous. They were fluffy and really annoying until an enterprising parent-superheroine-type invented a time machine, travelled back a few billion years, and killed all the sappy-voiced, pudgy, syrupy, sick sacks of sugar. To be realistic, said superheroine then added very fake looking vicious teeth and claws to the fossil record. All to spare us a non-extinct Barney. Unfortunately, a few (too many) videotapes remain. This is probably the cause of the decrease in fertility in most industrialized nations (where they have widespread access to DVD players and VCRs) except France, where Barney is probably banned as a cultural import (and thus evil). Now you know.

4:17 PM  

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