About this journal - my studies of the uncanny valley

This LJ is all about my research into the uncanny valley at the Open University. I began this journal during my MSc in 2003, and plan to complete my PhD thesis in 2013 - I'm studying part-time while I work full time, also with the Open University.

As well as writing about my own studies, I've written about where the uncanny valley has been mentioned by other bloggers, writers and academics. Therefore, while this journal serves as a record for me of how my plans and thoughts have developed, I hope it is also a useful resource for interested readers.

I am putting togather a gallery of images which I feel particularly trigger the uncanny valley effect, and it can be found here.

I am always keen to talk to people who are interested in this area, and have enjoyed opportunities to contribute to books, academic papers and art installations. If you'd like to talk, please do get in touch by email.

I'm always looking for more images to use as part of my research. If you'd like to contribute an image of an almost-human face or figure that you've found particularly unsettling, please leave a comment on this entry or contact me at the email address above.

New uncanny valley blog and ScoopIt pages

Hello lovely readers! (There are still some of you out there, right?)

I'm still working (bloody hard!) on this PhD project - my timelines have gone somewhat awry because of a difficult year - but I wanted to let you know that I've shifted to blogging somewhere else and don't think I'm likely to post on here much. Over the last year I've been writing a combined baking/PhD blog called 'Procrastination Recipes' - it started as an outlet for the PhD-caused stress but it's now where I go to when I want to get something out of my system or solve a problem that I'm working on. If you're still interested in my research, I'd love you to come and join me there for the last few months on my PhD.

I've also been curating a ScoopIt page on the Uncanny Valley for the last few months - it's now where I'm collating all the news stories, pictures, videos and even music that I think trigger a sense of the uncanny so has replaced that function too. Again, I'd love you to follow it if you'd like to keep up to date with all the latest 'news' on all things uncanny.

That's quite enough for one morning I think - so thanks for reading, and happy (nearly) Halloween to you all :)

~ Steph. 

Notes from the wrong end of the telescope.

I've been working on this post, on and off, since December when I first sat down and started writing my thesis up - it contains all the little notes to myself that I dearly, dearly wish I'd known when I set out to do a PhD. For me, that was six long years ago but I hope it's helpful to full-timers, part-timers and people who are considering whether to start this process at all...

To my wide-eyed self,

I'm thinking of you sitting in the computer lab in the library it's your first week on the PhD and you're having a head-spinning induction session. Part of you is terrified by the amount of work to come, but mostly you're incredibly smug that you're clever enough to do this and you'll be through the process in a breeze. You're very fortunate, you know. I'm going to bestow some wisdom on you now which is going to help you negotiate the next few years if not with ease then at least with a lot more grace than I enjoyed. You've got a shelf full of books on 'how to get a PhD' already but here's a clue - they all say the same thing. Start early, work hard, manage your timetable. Here are ten little bits that they're not going to tell you.

  1. Be really, really honest about the kind of research you want to do and pay attention to what makes you nervous. I've spent the last two years with severe anxiety about my analyses because I thought that I had a knack for hard sums. If it's not something you find joyful and fascinating, if the idea of it already makes your head hurt, don't base a PhD around it.

  2. Just because you've "done a course", it doesn't mean you know what you're doing. Passing does not equal understanding.

  3. You will find by the end of the process that you have not had enough experience doing real, live research. Whatever assessment you have of your skills, knock it down by 25%. Now, while things are quiet and you're planning the project go back over every technique you're going to need to apply and practice. Re-analyse the results of your MSc, restructure whatever data you have to hand so you can pretend it's from a different type of experimental design and you can run every kind of summary chart, practice repeated measures tests if you used independent groups in the past, and know what to do if you need to run non-parametric tests.

  4. Don't just practice the software work with these bits of revision. Practice the interpretation and get someone else to do the same thing. They don't need to be psychologists, just sit down and walk them through the logic of what you can see and what you've concluded. If you both agree, take it to proper academics for a final review. Trust me, right now I would trade several vital organs for a light-hearted sense of confidence in drawing conclusions from my results.

  5. If you're able to get access to raw data, take apart other people's research and re-analyse it yourself. I wish I'd taken the time to do this rather than just critically reading article after article, assuming I knew what I was doing.

  6. All of the above are aimed at avoiding my current situation - this is the first time in years that I've analysed results and am writing now them up and they're from my own research and it really, really matters that everything is perfect. I feel like I'm learning my craft in the highest-risk situation possible which feels like taking lessons in advanced Japanese while walking a tightrope. One slip...

  7. The pride and excitement of having a PhD place is amazing and you'll probably feel happier than you ever have done before. But pay close attention when the induction is over - how do you feel now? If it's lost, confused and worried, do something about it. Even if that something is accepting that this is not for you.

  8. Rationalise everything. Every decision you take from which paper to download first all the way through to the items you use to design the scales in your experiments - have a reason, write the reason down, rehearse convincing someone that it is a good idea. You will need to do this eventually - for the thesis, for the viva. Better get started early.

  9. Choose something with plenty of literature behind it. I didn't. For the first year or two, there was barely anything written on the uncanny valley. I thought this would be liberating and exciting - it's not, it's exhausting and you will end up with no confidence in any of the choices that you've made because you're making it up as you go along. (See 8.)

  10. This will consume your life. It is not a hobby, don't make that mistake. And definitely don't make it for four years before wising up to the fact that it's serious.

Yours, tired, heart-sick and full of regrets but edging closer to the end of the adventure every day.


One final call for participants...

Recruitment image

Can you spare 15-20 minutes to spend on an online experiment? You will be looking at pictures of faces, rating them on different scales and using ‘drag and drop’ to put them into different categories.

The study has been cleared by the Open University’s Ethics group and rather than make this a very long message I’ve included full details about me and the study on the first page. Before you click through please note that only people over 18 can take part but there are no other exclusions or restrictions. (I’m assuming that most of the people on this list are over 18 but I thought I’d better mention it!)

Here’s the link:

I launched it yesterday and have been told that the rating section is a little repetitive but I've had some feedback that the (later) drag and drop is actually quite fun!

My design means that I really do need a lot of participants (ideally 400 +) so if you would be willing to spread the word that would be very much appreciated. (And apologies to people who have seen this in several places already.)

I'm afraid I can't offer any paid incentive for your time but if I ever do manage to get all the way through to graduation I'll happily post a picture of myself in the lovely fetching OU robes by way of a thank-you ;)

Bad Week

Some weeks I wish I had never started this project - six years is a very, very long time to take over what should have been over and done with in three (well, if I was doing this full time) and even though I was enthusiastic and keen to start with, it's stretched thin over such a long time that it's really just bloody mindedness getting me through at the moment.

So - this week, I really really needed to get my survey set up and ideally tested. I can log into Qualtrics from anywhere, so was hoping to use my lunchbreaks at work to get some of the set-up work done. (I've finished designing the flow but there's still quite a laborious copy-and-paste job to do to get the right images in the right places.) However I've had an exceptionally huge amount to do, I didn't get any time to break for lunch let alone Qualtrics work , worked late every evening - until *midnight* on Wednesday! - and didn't get a thing done. 

It's now Saturday morning and weekends should be solid PhD work at the moment but I've still got at least a dozen small day-job things that I need to do before Monday - I can log in from home so that's not a problem but I just want to feel like I'm making some progress somewhere. And it's a properly beautiful day today, blue skies, sunshine and the world turning golden. I'd like to be out somewhere enjoying it, not choosing between several things I really don't want to do and deciding which unpleasant one it'll be best to start on. 

Oh dear. I seem to be in a particularly foul mood which isn't going to help! 

I wish I could give 2006-me a stern talking to about thinking that a part-time PhD would be easy and fun. All this do I can have a cheque book with 'Dr' on it. And I don't even use cheques any more! 
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New term, new toys.

Hello again! My short suspension of study is now over, and I'm back to work. Starting again on the first of September has really made it feel like going back to school after the summer holidays - the light's changing, the days are getting short and it's dark in the morning when I get up. Once upon a time I would have had new stationary to start the new term, now that everything is virtual I have a new piece of survey software to get to grips with. Either way, it feels like a fresh start and I've got a new sense of determination to press on and get my research completed. I have a new deadline for submitting my thesis - June 30th, 2013. It's going to be a challenge...

To get there, I still have one last set of data to collect. I'm building on the studies I've carried out to date - seven of them, believe it or not! - with one last online survey asking participants to view and comment on images of faces. This isn't new ground for me: online surveys are a significant part of my daytime job and I've been using them throughout my studies, but I have a new tool to use this time.

In the past, my tech expert (and long-suffering husband) jefurry has set up my surveys online using a website built in Lotus Notes. This time I'm wanting to do complex routing and filtering of participants so I've decided to use a commercial software package rather than give him headaches in trying to develop those functions. My department had a licence for SurveyMonkey so I started to explore that but quickly found I was limited in what I could achieve. As part of my daytime job I had been testing out the Qulatrics package and soon decided that that was going to be a much better fit for what I wanted for my next study.

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I'm trying to make as much time for my research as possible: I'm trying out taking a regular day off just for research and nothing else.  (This is in addition to the moments stolen from lunchbreaks and squeezed into evenings and weekends. My first one of these was yesterday and I wasn't sure I'd get much done but it was really very productive. It's been hard to pick up the strands of where I left off in June but I'm getting there - and having had a good day yesterday I'm looking forward to another one today. Doesn't stop me wishing desperately I wasn't trying to do this part-time, but there's nothing to be done about that... 

Taking a break

This is a sad post to write - I'm taking a break from my research for a while. I've had a difficult year: my family have been through bereavement and serious illness, and I'm finding that's making it difficult to focus on my research. Studying with the OU allows research students a degree of flexibility so I'm able to suspend my studies for a short period to get my life back on track.

I've used this flexibility before when I my job was becoming particularly stressful, and then again when I was promoted and didn't have any free time for studying but it's never something that I want to do. I've had moments of joy while working on this research but it's mainly a long, hard slog to get anything done and stopping for a while means that I lose any momentum that I've managed to build up - really, not ideal.

However, it's the right thing to do for the moment. I'm signing off now - and will be back again in September.

Bye for now.
For thesis writing posts

347 and counting

I said the other day that I'd booked today off to get some work done… and here I am!

I'm currently analysing the results of my last study: I decided that I wanted to have at least one traditional experiment as part of the thesis, and a study looking at whether there was a difference in recognition speed for different types of human and almost-human faces seemed to be ideally suited to this aim. I designed the study last year, created all of the source images, and spent November, December and January recruiting participants across the OU and meeting them in my lunch breaks to run the study. I was testing the theory that almost-human faces are processed in a different way to natural human or artificial faces, and while I'm working on the data at the moment, I have some interesting preliminary results!

Once I've drawn my conclusions there, I can decide how to structure my final data collection exercise: I loved the face-to-face data collection, but I'm going back to a web-based format just to get results in a timely fashion. I want to look at the impact of feature swapping: one of my theories about the uncanny valley is that part of the disquiet comes from mismatched features: for example, where the eyes are too 'dead' for a realistic face, or they don't show the same expression as the rest of the face. (I won't go into detail about the study as I'll be recruiting via this blog :) and don't want to bias anyone's participation.)

So, by the end of the day I want to have a full set of analysis output, with notes on the interpretation and a diagram showing the plan for the next study. I've also been working on an outline for the sections I want to include in my thesis, but that's making me confused and tetchy, so I think I might leave that for a bit, and come back to it after my meeting tomorrow.

Right. Time for a coffee, then time to fire up SPSS…
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    The Washing Machine Song - Jordan Reyne / Dr Kevorkian & the Suicide Machine
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For thesis writing posts

351 days to go…

I'm nearing the end of my research now, and it seems like a good time to start writing this blog again, to keep track of how I'm getting on with the last phase of the project seeing as it has been so important and instrumental in keeping me on track long enough to get to this stage!

I expect I'm going to be blogging quite a lot over the next few weeks and months - if just to give me 'someone' to talk to about the process of completing my research and writing my thesis. As the subject suggests, I've got just under a year until the end of my PhD, so I'm really feeling the time pressure now. I'm hoping that by writing out some of the concerns and worries that I have, I'll free up some space in my head just to get on and do the work. That's the plan, anyway.

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