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The Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny Valley was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, as a term referring to the hypothetical state in which a robot, avatar, or other non-human humanoid facsimile is at first received in an increasingly positive and empathic way from interacting humans. However, as it becomes even more realistic, it hits a 'valley', a point where positive response tails off dramatically, and responses of unease, revulsion, and even fright are exhibited instead.

Uncanny valley draws heavily from an essay by Sigmund Freud entitled "The Uncanny". This is in turn based upon Ernst Jentsch's concept of the uncanny, identified in a 1906 essay, "On the Psychology of the Uncanny."

When we proceed to review things, persons, impressions, events and situations which are able to arouse in us a feeling of the uncanny in a particularly forcible and definite form, the first requirement is obviously to select a suitable example to start on. Jentsch has taken as a very good instance 'doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate'; and he refers in this connection to the impression made by waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata. To these he adds the uncanny effect of epileptic fits, and of manifestations of insanity, because these excite in the spectator the impression of automatic, mechanical processes at work behind the 'ordinary appearance of mental activity. Without entirely accepting this author's view, we will take it as a starting point for our own investigation because in what follows he reminds us of a writer who has succeeded in producing uncanny effects better than anyone else.

Jentsch writes: 'In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately. 'I'hat, as we have said, would quickly dissipate the peculiar emotional effect of the thing.
Sigmund Freud

This extract from The Uncanny delves to the root of the problem: An impression of automation or of not quite real is developed in the mind of the viewer. A more modern example would be the zombie, where the undead's face and bodily movement is slightly off, and thus not quite 'real'. The additional effort spent in working out why something is not quite real, done entirely unconsciously, is what sparks the fear or revulsion it provokes.

The Uncanny Valley

When a face or a body pushes past the uncanny valley, and becomes as realistic as the unconscious mind perceives it should be, these negative emotions rapidly vanish and become positive and emotive once again.

A related condition to uncanny valley exists for the auditory sense. This is known as the McGurk Effect. First described by Harry McGurk in 1976, the McGurk Effect is a visual/auditory phenomenon that occurs when watching lips move and hearing sounds that sound like speech.

A strange feedback loop is created whereby if the speech does not match the lip movement, even if the speech is perfectly clear, the brain will combine the lip movement and sound, and come up with sounds halfway in between what is heard and the lip movement seen.

So for example, if you hear the sound "BA" and see someone's lips move to pronounciate "GA", if you are like most people, you will 'hear' "DA".


Sigmund Freud's "The Uncanny"

McGurk Effect

VWN Virtual Dictionary: Uncanny Valley

VWN Virtual Dictionary: McGurk Effect
Dictionary.php?Term= McGurk%20Effect

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