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 What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

Uncanny Valley: the talking heads of Jean Paul Gaultier

June 26th, 2012 by Peggy Aycinena

Over the last few weeks
, quite a lot of things have happened here in the Bay Area: some expected, some unexpected, some uncanny, and some downright Uncanny Valley.

For instance, it was expected that the Bay-to-Breakers would run early on May 20th, but unexpected that the weather would be so lovely on that morning. It was expected that a solar eclipse would happen just before sundown on the same day, but unexpected that the weather would hold out so millions in the Bay Area could see it. In other words, no fog in the morning or the afternoon.

It was expected on May 27th that the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge would be celebrated with extraordinary fireworks, but unexpected that the fog hovering off the coast should wait until just after the fireworks display to finally enter in through the Golden Gate.

It was expected that DAC would open in Moscone Center on the morning of June 3rd, and not surprising that astronomy buffs in EDA would be out in force in front of the convention center on the afternoon of June 4th to watch Venus transit across the face of the sun. It was unexpected, however, that the fog would again be courteous enough to wait until after sundown to show up – hence, not ruining the show.

It was expected that the San Francisco Giants would play the Houston Astros on June 13th, but totally unexpected that Matt Cain would pitch a perfect game to a sold-out crowd at home. There have only been 22 perfect games out of approximately 100,000 played over the history of professional baseball, so that certainly qualifies as unexpected.

Also in the category of sports, it was expected that the U.S. Open would take place at the legendary Olympic Club in San Francisco during the second week of June. It was unexpected, however, that the weather would remain so unseasonably clear and balmy up until the very last day of the tournament.

Then in an uncanny move where weather imitated life, the fog rolled in thick and ominous and the whole last day of play was cold and miserable from start to finish. A weather event that mimicked the unexpected results of the tournament: Nobody had picked Webb Simpson to win until the very last.

All of this expected, unexpected, and even uncanny is not, however, what’s boggled minds here in the Bay Area over recent weeks. That’s been left to an exhibit currently underway at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. In that exhibit, the full meaning of Uncanny Valley has been made very clear.

French designer Jean Paul Gaultier has been a celebrity in the world of fashion for over 40 years. This year for the first time, a massive retrospective of his work is on display at the De Young, but it’s not the garments that are drawing them in. It’s the mannequins.

When you first enter the exhibit, particularly if you’re unprepared, your first impression is that the garments are being shown by live models. After all, the mannequins talk, wink, look around, smile, grin, peruse and sing – or so you think.

In fact, the eerie affect has been achieved by projecting video of talking heads onto a ‘screen’ that’s shaped to look like a human head, complete with nose, indents for eyes, and a carefully shaped chin.

The effect when you’re standing and looking at these beings is more than uncanny, it’s downright Uncanny Valley – that uncomfortable place in robotics where the man-made device is so human-like you have the queasy feeling it might actually be real.

But the true test of the Uncanny Valley now playing at the De Young?

People stop in their tracks, stare back at the faces on the mannequins, smile when they smile, and eventually yield a nervous laugh when they realize that reality and illusion have diverged and reconverged right before their very eyes.

We all think we want robots to take over the dirty work of living, but given the public’s response to this simplest of forays into the Uncanny Valley, perhaps we should be careful what we ask for.


See it on YouTube …

Check it out here on YouTube from the Love.Eat.Travel’s Channel.

There’s an ad to wade through, but this video’s one of the best online to capture the effect.


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