I spent 38 hours in New Orleans in mid-December. I think.

New Orleans has long had the nickname, “The Big Easy,” earned by a relaxed lifestyle and party atmosphere. After my visit, I will forever refer to the place as, “The Uncanny Valley.” Things are not quite what they seem here, yet they are so close that can become unsettling. That’s basically the theory of the uncanny valley.

Robotics professor, Masahiro Mori, coined the term while researching human emotional response to non-human entities. He concluded that our affinity for an object (inanimate or real) grows as the object becomes more lifelike, but only to a point.

Those who work with visual aspects of human artificial intelligence or animation or prosthetics or burn reconstruction are familiar with the uncanny valley hypothesis.

Here’s Mori’s diagram:

Mori's Uncanny Valley

From the left, we can see the curve increase, reflecting the growing affinity as human likeness increases. The uncanny valley is the part of the curve where our affinity plummets. It turns to revulsion, as the brain struggles to reconcile the conflict between near-human actions with the subtlety of imperfections in appearance. It’s where things begin to creep us out.

Here’s Todd’s version of the uncanny valley…

Picture one of my dirty socks. In fact, here is one so you won’t have to.

dirty sockHow many of you said, “Awww, Todd your sock is so cute! Can I hold it?” I didn’t think so. Wash it (please!), stuff it, add a few facial features, and you’ll want to name it and call it your own.

baby seal il_fullxfull.372118802_9plwSuddenly, I can’t keep them in stock, even at the low low price of $19.99, but only if you act now.

We’ve cheered for (and cried over) the fictional industrial robot, R2-D2, and the animated version of the same idea, Wall-E. We have strong affinity for them. They make their home on the positive part of Mori’s curve.

Most animators of family movies spend careers avoiding the uncanny valley region, but limits were pushed in movies like, “I, Robot”.

irobotThis character lies on the downward slope of the curve. We have some affinity but the onset of creepiness exists. In the case of this movie, I think this effect was smartly used to support the plot.

The Polar Express animated movie is an example of the lower part of the uncanny valley curve. This was unintentional by its creators, and most likely a fallout of pushing technique a little farther than the capabilities of animation technology.

The-Polar-Express-the-polar-express-14551870-1280-589The animated feature transformed a very popular, moving and beautifully drawn picture book into a trainful of soul-less, glass-eyed serial killer children. Our brains cannot reconcile the difference between the reality of what we see and our brain’s expectations. The result is the opposite of affinity.

It’s not surprising that the uncanny valley is the target region for successful horror movies, like American Horror Story (guess what city the show is filmed in, by the way).

In the uncanny valley, my dirty sock becomes a cute stuffed animal. Add more human qualities and the inanimate object becomes so lifelike that it eventually resembles a corpse. Animators have gone there unintentionally, creating talking heads that don’t blink, and mouth movements that are slightly out of synch with the sounds of the spoken words.

The field of prosthetics has given us hands that seem so lifelike that we can’t imagine touching shaking them. Human robotics have entered the uncanny valley and are struggling because of it.

Repliee_Q2Do you really want to interact with her on any level? I think not.

What else lives in the uncanny valley? It is where the undead reside. And voodoo zombies. Voodoo! Finally, he links this uncanny valley crap with New Orleans! I knew he had it in him!

Voodoo is practiced here in the city previously known as The Big Easy. I don’t mean the touristy voodoo trinkets found on Bourbon Street. I mean the real thing. Here jazz bands accompany funeral marches. Most of the city basically exists below sea level. So many signs suggest that it’s probably not a good idea to live here, yet people thrive in this place.

Don’t take my uncanny valley analogy too literally. I have no revulsion to New Orleans. I love the city. As soon as I landed, my affinity quickly grew. All I’m really saying is that New Orleans is farther from normal than I anticipated.

I just wasn’t prepared for the number of non-normal experiences in my 38 hours here. Little did I know, I had landed on the downward slope of the curve. Then I took a step.

I’ll attempt to use Mori’s hypothesis as a common theme in my next four posts. Along the way, you will discover how stupid I can actually be. You will also find out how much my life is worth in monetary terms. You’ll learn how sometimes what starts out as an intimate conversation can become a discussion with a total stranger and his dead bird.

For the fifth and final entry of this Uncanny Valley series, I hope you’ll enjoy my short story set in New Orleans and based loosely on the facts from the previous four posts.

Episode 1 is this intro. Episode 2 opens as my plane touches down in New Orleans Friday afternoon, December 13th, 2013, and it’s on the way …