Design and the Uncanny

Old robots(Spare parts from an old robot encountered last year)

In "The Uncanny and The Everyday in the Design of Robots" (a paper submitted as a CHI workshop in 2004), Carl DiSalvo discusses an intriguing topic: how the design should not prevent people loosing sight how unusual certain artifacts are. He applies his reasoning to electronic products such as robots:

"Recently there has been a surge in the development of robots as products for use in offices, public spaces, and the home. (...) The forms and functions of robots are often explicitly constructed as imitations of living beings. Through these imitations, robots exhibit and are attributed qualities such as emotion, intelligence, and autonomy, (...) how can we avoid losing sight of how unusual it is to grant such qualities and roles to them? "

Di Salvo then proposes that "The Uncanny" is a relevant and critical approach to reveal the underlying issues and implications of robots. What he means by this term is simply that the familiar can act strangely, which is of course related to this "Uncanny Valley" notion:

"The Uncanny Valley is that point where the resemblance between a robot and a human is almost, but not quite, identical, and the tension between this difference/sameness is disturbing. Even though The Uncanny Valley has never been systematically examined, it is perpetuated in the robotics community as a place to be avoided. But perhaps, it is not a place to be avoided. Because The Uncanny causes us to confront basic assumptions central to the design of robots, perhaps it is exactly the place where a critical approach to the design of robots should focus. "

He then gives three conceptual propositions for the design of uncanny domestic robots:

  1. Robotic Vacuums That Speak Their Mind ("I have never been in this room before, please stay with me while I clean it.")
  2. Homely Homes For Robots, Unhomely Homes for Humans ("uncanny homes, homes that were unhomley for humans but homely for robots — redefining the artifact as an inhabit")
  3. Real Appliance Pets ("transform a robotic vacuum cleaner into a more realistic imitation of a pet")

Why do I blog this Beyond the fascination towards this sort of device (of course I'd love to have a nevrotic robot), I find this discussion about the Uncanny highly important. Not only about robots of course. Design is often based on the assumption that it will create objects and experiences that match up with people and their practices. Or that it can "integrate the new into the everyday". I wonder about different ways to go beyond this situation and what Di Salvo describes in this paper is surely an interesting solution to create enriching user experiences. I guess personalization is also another relevant possibility.