The Uncanny Valley

As a fretful middle-class parent of an impressionable tot I broadly approve of the CBeebies output, especially In the Night Garden (a comedy classic) and the lovely 64 Zoo Lane. But horrors do lurk in the schedules. One to avoid is LazyTown, an unholy Icelandic/UK/US collaboration, all blaring colours and yelps. In particular, LazyTown contains a loathsome puppet called Ziggy. If you thought Susan’s breastfeeding automaton was icky, check him out:

Ziggy is creepy, I realised, because he exists in the Uncanny Valley. Blogosphere giant David Cohen introduced me to the Uncanny Valley, which is a theory of robotics coined by Masahiro Mori. The concept, as David described it, is that people will respond to a robot who looks exactly like a human almost as if it were human, and that people will respond to robots who don’t look like humans more like it was a human the closer it comes to looking human. But this is not a straight-line function because there is a point where a robot will look almost but not quite human where it will fall into the Uncanny Valley and cause revulsion.

There are possible explanations for the phenomenon on Wikipedia, as well as this rather wonderful graph:

In fact, the Uncanny Valley is taken seriously by film-makers, especially in these early days of CGI. Apparently the humans in Polar Express creeped people out, and James Cameron was keen to claim that Avatar was the first film to conquer the Valley with his super-duper animation effects. (I’m not sure – when those big blue avatars are first glimpsed, floating like monstrous embryos in the tanks, I was pretty nauseated).

Other film-makers have used the Uncanny Valley to their advantage, even before it was widely understood as a concept. Zombies reside there, and Doctor Who has always made good use of the horror of the not-quite-human; I recall one particular episode in which the baddies were shop-window dummies come to life. And then there are the Milibands, of course.

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Brit

4 thoughts on “The Uncanny Valley

  1. Gaw
    September 28, 2010 at 12:17

    Lazytown. God I hate that creepy, irritating programme. And I thank the Gods that my two little boys hate it too.

    Banished To A Pompous Land
    September 28, 2010 at 18:15

    Totally agree re. Lazytown. Even the humans there dwell in the Uncanny Valley.

    I’m currently introducing my 3 year old to Charlie and Lola, thankfully available here in the USA with the the original voices and not some horrific mid Atlantic overdub. Between me, Charlie and Lola we’ll confuse the poor little bugger.

    Many of the UK series run over here on cable but most are revoiced, horribly. Strangly in Bob the Builder everyone is dubbed except the scarecrow thing. Perhaps he lives in the valley too?

    September 28, 2010 at 19:29

    LazyTown is very Eurovision, isn’t it? And God, yes, that scarecrow thing in Bob the Builder is hellish.

    September 29, 2010 at 00:46

    Uncannily fascinating post, Brit! Thanks for introducing me to LazyTown – preparing the young for the horrors of the Milibands perhaps?

Comments are closed.