More scary knitting – is it the uncanny valley again?

The joys of multidiscipliarity. I’ve already mentioned that one of the psychologists in our group, Dave Kirk, has picked up our technological work on surface computing to ask questions about how different materials are perceived (and could be perceived as part of computing systems). This led him to lay down the challenge ‘show me something scary made of wool’. A few of us in the group tried, and I’ve already catalogued my failures in another post. But it’s such an intriguing idea – to find something woollen and scary or to understand why we cannot – that I’ve been trying to enlist friends and, well, anyone who’ll listen. Jofish came up trumps by bringing an amazing seamstress/weaver (what is someone called who crochets for a living?) cozycoleman to my attention. Cozycoleman has some brilliant work for sale. In fact I immediately fell for her crocheted chess set and brought the last one.

(Don’t worry – she does sell the pattern.)

So how did Dave respond? Success! When asked if he was scared he replied “if I’m honest yes” 🙂 But this is where the plot thickens. It wasn’t the shocking anatomical nature of the educational birthing doll I used at the head of this post that got him, it was a later one from the same set. This one.

Cozycoleman isn’t out to shock. Her goal with these dolls is to help children understand birth. My intuition is that these dolls would do just that. I’m especially taken with the removable umbilical chord:

But looking back to that seated doll there is something spooky. I’m reminded of Mrs Bates from Psycho – someone who isn’t quite human. So perhaps the unsettling nature of these is that they are trying to look human and in so doing become scary. In his work on everyday perceptions of machine intelligence Alex has mentioned the concept in robotics of the “uncanny valley“. This hypothesis (by Masahiro Mori) states that we can cope with robots until they become too much like humans, when the slight differences unsettle us. He hypothesises that robot designers could work away and eliminate those differences, thus climbing back out of the valley. I’m not convinced. But back to wool. Armed with this new idea, that woollen humans would indeed be scary I’ve found some other examples on the blog http://mochimochiland.com/weblog/

First Anna (who writes http://mochimochiland.com/weblog/) found a very unsettling granny on a filler bag she’d brought, and she wrote about it in this post (http://mochimochiland.com/weblog/2008/07/creepy-polyfil/):

And now she’s found another great creepy scene, and written about it in this post: http://mochimochiland.com/weblog/2008/07/knitted-knitting-group/

Summing up, I think the uncanny valley may hold at least one key to how to make wool scary.

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