Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Uncanny Valley

Sharon Wildwind

This past weekend I finally watched Happy Feet. With apologies to all of the people who worked very hard on the movie, it didn’t grab me.

Since I get crabby and curmudgeonly in the dark time of the year, I asked my husband for his perspective. “Is it just me or is there something wrong with this movie?”

He said, “It’s an excellent example of the uncanny valley.”

I blinked. “The uncanny what?”

In 1906 a German psychiatrist, Ernst Jentsch, wrote an essay called On the Psychology of the Uncanny. Thirteen years later Sigmund Freud picked up on the concept and wrote another essay called The Uncanny. Freud’s essay was translated into English; Jentsch’s essay wasn’t translated until 1995, so for seventy-five years the English-speaking world was more familiar with Freud’s work than with Jentsch’s.

Canny is Scottish word meaning to be warm and snug. To be uncanny is to be just the opposite: cold, disturbing, and revolting.

The uncanny valley theory goes something like this: as a group human beings have a general belief that standard-looking human equals safe and non-standard-looking human equals creepy or uncanny. There is a huge cultural overlay of what “standard-looking” and “non-standard-looking” mean, so what looks creepy in North America may not look creepy in Africa or New Guinea and vice-versa. There are also age and other sub-categories of difference; a five-year old and a fifty-five-year old looking at the same person may react differently.

Initially this theory was applied just to human beings but as computers, robots, artificial intelligence, and computer-generated imaging developed, the same theory was applied to non-humans that behaved like humans.

Think about the Star Wars robot R2-D2, which looks like a mobile trash can and sounds like a whistling tea kettle alternating with a very angry bird. R2-D2 is at the 0% human characteristics start of the scale. Viewers might find it endearing or annoying, but it is generally not perceived as creepy.

At the other end of the scale Lieutenant Commander Data in The Next Generation is hugely creepy. Data should have been hatred, but wasn’t. There were probably two reasons for this. First, he was past the uncanny valley point on the scale and, except for weird colored skin and wearing contact lens, he looked very, very human.

I often wondered if the contact lens play a part. I’ve read actors’ interviews where they talked about how uncomfortable most theatrical contact lenses are. I couldn’t watch a scene with Data without thinking that I was watching a human being who was probably experiencing something between discomfort and real pain; I wanted the scene to end so he could remove those lenses.

The second saving grace was that the writers wrote and Brent Spiner played Data as a character of conflicts and self-depreciation. It was bemused, confused, and curious; in other words, admitting especially to itself that it was not human and therefore not a threat.

In between those two points, at approximately the point on the chart where an artificial creation looks 75% to 85% human, the most common reaction changes from positive to negative: the uncanny valley. The reaction become positive again only when the representation approaches looking 100% human.

The uncanny valley is why Frankenstein horrified audiences. And why I think that David Lynch made the right choice in the movie, The Elephant Man (1980), to show—except for one brief clip—Joseph Merrick as either clothed or as an outline behind a screen. In the first case, the uncanny valley effect added to the character; in the second, seeing Merrick’s deformities for a longer period would have detracted from the audience’s ability to be sympathetic to the character.

I suspect that Mumbles, too, fell into the valley point on the chart.

My main problem with Mumbles was his clear blue eyes and the never changing baby penguin appearance. As a writer I get it: use physical characteristics to emphasize that the character is an outsider.

As a business person who markets, I get it even more. A chubby, blue-eyed, downy-soft stuffed animal should sell like hot cakes. It did. Still objects produce a shallower uncanny valley than moving objects do. I suspect I might find Mumbles as a stuffed animal less objectionable than I found him as an animated character.

Most of all, I found the romance scenes between Gloria, who had developed into an adult penguin and Mumbles, who hadn’t, as major creepiness. It was like those tabloid stories of teachers sleeping with their students, and I wish the people who created the characters had made different choices.


Leslie Budewitz said...

Sharon wrote: " seeing Merrick’s deformities for a longer period would have detracted from the audience’s ability to be sympathetic to the character."

Another aspect: long exposure can desensitize the audience to the horror, and if the horror's the point, you don't want to do that. My trial practice prof in law school described a case with a woman who was badly disfigured by an accident, but was such a lovely person that he felt if the jury saw a lot of her, they would like her so much that they would no longer see the horror of her injuries. He wanted them to like her--which he could do through a brief introduction and other witnesses--and sympathize, but still be horrified enough to give her a high damage award.

Anonymous said...

That's very interesting. Someone else blogged recently about how desensitized we are becoming because TV and the movies have gone so full-frontal. I've seen more devastating things on CSI than I saw working in an emergency room.