Carleton grad students are doing amazing research. Alumnus Tyler Burleigh took an unusual trip to the “Uncanny Valley” for his master’s thesis in psychology. The following story about his research was written by Shannon Wilmot.

Your favourite filmmaker may have nightmares about a place called the uncanny valley.

Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori put forward the theory of the Uncanny Valley in 1970. It states that the closer in appearance a robot is to human the greater positive emotional response a human will have, until there is a point where there is a sudden drop and humans become repulsed by these creations. However, as the likeness continues to increase the positive response grows again.

Arguably it’s why cartoonish figures like Nintendo’s Mario and the vaguely human eyes and movements of Disney’s Wall-E so effectively encourage our empathy, while the sluggish movement of zombies and certain images of human characters in video games creep us out.

“The classic example everyone points to is The Polar Express,” explains cognitive psychology master’s student Tyler Burleigh. In this 2004 family film actor Tom Hanks plays many of the characters, each have animated features superimposed onto Hanks’ performance. The movie received mixed reviews. The characters felt off to many, like a creepy wax museum, says Burleigh.

The Uncanny Valley has slippery slopes and is a very real concern for movie makers, video game designers and roboticists. However, there is a definite divide in the field of those who believe in the theory and those who don’t.

Burleigh tackled the theory for his master’s thesis. He had participants look at 49 different renderings of various 3D model faces. Participants were asked to rate on a scale of one to seven their answers to questions such as ‘How human is this face?’, ‘How eerie?’, ‘How scary?’.

“I went into it excited to see the Uncanny Valley theory proved. I mean, it’s a sexy theory, right? It’s fascinating. I really wanted to find the Uncanny Valley in my data so I could tell that story, but it didn’t work out. That wasn’t the story the data told.”

Burleigh’s findings defied the Uncanny Valley. Why? Burleigh says it is because the theory is just too simple. When we are repulsed by an image, find it eerie or uncomfortable, there are more factors at play then just human likeness. This could include such factors as an evolutionary reaction against possible contamination when viewing a perfectly human looking face that also looks slightly sick.

Although the Uncanny Valley theory may be too simple, the effect is undeniably real. “The Uncanny Valley is a real, very serious concern for designers,” says Burleigh. “It is a theory that has become dogmatic in people’s mind. My research shows this is probably to their detriment.”

Burleigh cautions that adhering too closely to the theory may keep designers from taking chances and using their full creativity. Better understandings of the effect and how to mitigate and even eliminate it will provide designers with better tools when it comes to building their creations.

Burleigh is just one example of a Carleton student researching digital media, one of four areas of research focus for the university.

1 thought on “Carleton Grad Student Travels to the “Uncanny Valley””

  1. Stephanie says:

    Great to read about other new researchers in this area! I’d love to read more about the methodology Tyler used: is the thesis available online anywhere?

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