The Uncanny Valley

This website should not only be for the sim building work which I undertake at Syncretia but for all of the experiences that the island has generated for me. Thus, I intend to write on all kinds of things that happen at Syncretia, as long as they have anything to do with creative activity. And since I consider play to be very much the core of all creativity that Second Life has enabled me with, quite a bit of what I put into these posts will be about play. And typically it will not be based upon playing with objects that I rezed myself but things that have come way – that I have either bought or found. This is very much the case with all of the apparel that has gone into a somewhat sinister dress up game that I became very preoccupied with for a few weeks last June: The Uncanny Valley.

This all started with a conference paper that I had to write for the Consciousness Reframed 09 conference proceedings. I had a colossal writer’s block. I already had an accepted abstract around which I would ordinarily have been expected to round up the paper but what I had scribbled down 6 months or so ago at that point in time had lost its excitement for me. Also I had written another paper based more or less on the subject for yet another conference and it really became an insurmountable chore to have to sit down and rewrite the same exact things with just a twist all over again. So, I decided to pretty much scrap the whole thing and start from scratch.

Now, for the most part I quite enjoy writing. However, I cannot really write enthusiastically unless what I write about is based upon some kind of personal experience, or a creative act; in short something that captures my imagination. That has to be the foundation and then somehow I can usually forge something academic out of even the most subjective content – I have become pretty skillful at snooping out appropriate citations that suit my needs out of databases. You would really be amazed at how it always seems to work. How there always seems to be someone out there who formulated your subjective non-sense into hardcore scientific writing. It is like magic – once you know how to look and where to look.

The Uncanny Valley is the point in which the facsimile of a human looks almost, but not entirely, like a human. It was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, and has been linked to Ernst Jentsch‘s concept of “the uncanny” identified in a 1906 essay, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” as well as Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay, “The Uncanny”. Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely-human” and “fully human”entity is called the Uncanny Valley.

I took this idea as the basis of creating a number of avatars that for me tackled this border, largely to test my own reactions and my levels of empathy towards Alpha, my more or less look-alike avatar.

replicator

Replicator Alpha was created from parts of the Grendel’s Children Replicator avatar and the Ironforge skin by Vry Offcourse.

clockwork

clockwork1

Clockwork Alpha was created with the clockwork skin by Pandora Wrigglesworth and the Steampunk arm and leg attachments by Lucia Cyr.

cyborg2

cyborg1

Cyborg Alpha was created with two Vry Offcourse skins, Frail above and Ocelot below as well as the Lucia Cyr steampunk attachments.

crawler

Crawler Alpha was created with the parts of Crawler avatar by Grendel’s Children.

defender

And again, Defender Alpha was created by the same named avatar by Grendel’s Children.

Representations that fall into the Uncanny Valley would not necessarily have to be mechanoid – or at least that is what I would imagine. Something which is humanoid yet clearly non-human, should also qualify. However, in this case it might help if the representations in questions have negative subconscious associations. Thus I proceeded to create three mythological female avatars, all with inherently evil attributes, as a succubus or a siren surely have. All the skins for these avatars are by Vry Offcourse and all have been assembled out of Grendel’s Children avatars.

zebra

Siren Alpha

fog1

Fog Succubus Alpha

smoke

Smoke Succubus Alpha

Can extreme beauty become scary, repulsive even, simply because it falls outside of the scope of what we recognize as human? When I made Steampunk Queen Alpha I found her to be so beautiful here that I was in awe of her. In fact, this was the most removed that I felt from her since the onset of the little adventure in the Uncanny Valley.

queen1

queen2

Stempunk Queen Alpha. The skin used is a Drow skin by Loli Nori and all the attachments are by aoimizuno Meili – except the feet which are the work of Marissa Lurra.

However, I knew that no matter how alienated I had felt from Steampunk Queen Alpha there was one last big hurdle in store for me – a skin that I had seen on a colleague and had been really struck and fascinated by. I had left the Decaying Cyborg Skin to last. Thus, to quote from my own Flickr photostream:

This is truly horrifiying. I had a really hard time doing this… Seeing it on someone else is not quite the same as putting it on yourself. I did have a sense that clothing Alpha in this skin would be a very difficult thing to do and it took me a really long time to even decide to go out and purchase the skin. But finally I did it yesterday. The bones are the bones of the whale avatar of Grendel’s Children.

So, this is the end of the road for now: I have raked this as deep as I think can go at the moment without totally cracking up over it. One of my favorite writers is Mishima and what I think of as one of his best books is entitled “The Decay of the Angel”. And that is what should probably be the title of these.”

dead11

dead2

Decomposing Cyborg Alpha. The skin is by mealune Arad and the whale bones by Ryan Snook of Grendel’s Children.

However, as it turned out, The Decomposing Cyborg Skin was not the end of the road: I met Jeanni Nishi on Flickr, through a very nice and supportive comment that she wrote for the Uncanny Valley set, in which she expressed an interest in the whole process. As time went on she and I began to correspond and she let me know at some point that she had designed an “uncanny” skin and showed me the pictures she had posted here on Flickr. Then she wanted to know if I would be interested in trying out the skin to which I gave a yelp of joy in response. The skin duly arrived in SL. So, here it is:

jeanni-front

jeanni-back

Alpha is crying… Crying helplessly, silently, in resignation. This is the closest that I have ever felt to Alpha, the most that I have ever identified with her avatar pain
Jeanni thank you. You have made Alpha come alive for me, like never ever before.

jeanni-double

Same identical shape, I just changed the skin.

It is all in the expression. All our humanity, all our beauty, everything we posses is our expression. It really doesn’t matter if you have steampunk prosthesis or black horns or whether your skin is green. What will catapult you over the threshold of the valley, into the realm of the fully human is your expression…

Note: When I wrote the paper, I also made mention of Julia Kristeva’s concept of the Abject, which seems to me to somehow relate to what it was that I was trying to accomplish here. The blog post related to that can be read here.

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