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The Muppets Take Uncanny Valley

A new Tumblr sprouted up last week featuring photoshopped portraits of well-known Muppets with human eyes where their Muppet eyes should be.
January 4, 2011, 10:41pm

The Muppets have entered the uncanny valley.

A new Tumblr sprouted up last week featuring photoshopped portraits of well-known Muppets with human eyes where their Muppet eyes should be. The site, fittingly titled Muppets with People Eyes, clearly aims to exhibit more creepiness than cuteness. Equipped with “people eyes,” the normally child-friendly Sesame-Streeters look like stuffed sociopaths.

While the idea of the Uncanny Valley is usually reserved for human-like robots (see the youtube primer above), it can also be applied to this hilarious Tumblr. The mere substitution of eyes gives the ordinarily goofy puppets a palpable, though awkward, sense of humanity. While it may seem surprising that eyes alone could plunge the Muppets into the uncanny valley, there is a psychological precedent – eyes play a vital role in human facial processing.

When we look at a face, our saccades (rapid movements of the eyes) land on others’ eyes more often than other regions of the face. What’s more, most infants can read the direction of people’s gazes well before they’re two years old. Most importantly, eyes are thought to be the essential facial region for communicating complex mental states and emotions.

While the particulars of eye-language frequently appear in psychology and cognitive science research, references to the communicative power of the eyes are also found in culture en masse. For instance, in ancient Yiddish proverbs:

The eyes are the mirror of the soul.

In Shakespeare:

Alack! There lies more peril in thine eye, than twenty of their swords.

In Emerson

The eyes of men converse as much as their tongues, with the advantage that the ocular dialect needs no dictionary, but is understood all the world over.

In the robots and puppets of popular film, eyes often keep nonhumans from breaching the edge of the valley. For example, C-3PO has two dimly-lit plastic circles for eyes and Wall-E has a couple of cute camera lenses.

Most people aren’t creeped out by either of these characters, though I would venture a guess that if someone stuck “people eyes” on them (yea photoshoppers, that’s a provocation) they probably would be.

However, other popular film characters do have people-ish eyes rendering them somewhat more creepy than cuddly. E.T. provoked a blood curdling scream upon his discovery in a dark corn field, and many viewers were put off by the friendly-sounding but creepy humanoids of I-Robot (not to mention the movie itself).

The difference is in the eyes. ET’s organic-looking peepers made him more identifiably human-like, and that’s why he scares more kids than Wall-E. The I-Robots have distinctly human-like eyes and would undoubtedly beat C-3PO in a creep off.

While the jury is out on the psychology behind the uncanny valley phenomenon (the most popular theory is that humanoid nonhumans remind of us death…think zombies), eyes certainly play a key role in the aesthetics of manufactured humanity and the degree to which the uncannies creep us out.

As Kermit says, it’s not that easy being people-eyed.

More on the Uncanny Valley: Seductive Robots; An i-Fairy Tale Wedding; Video: Smiling Fembot Android Will Help, Freak Out, Hospital Patients

pic / Muppets with People Eyes