As the proliferation of computing devices and perceptive media increasingly merge our digital and physical environments, we approach an Uncanny City.

The Uncanny Valley is an hypothesis in the field of robotics and 3D computer animation. It states that as the appearance of a robot or animation is made more realistically human, an observer’s emotional response will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion (Masahiro Mori, 1970).

As the artificial being’s appearance becomes less distinguishable from that of a human, the emotional response becomes positive once again. This zone of repulsion referred to as the Uncanny Valley is the “gap” between these two states of positive emotional response.

In marketing and advertising we typically look for opportunities to increase the personal relevance of our work in order to generate an emotional response (preferably a positive one). It makes the work more effective.

Digital technologies have increased our ability to do this in recent years. The number of techniques available seem to grow at an accelerating rate: data about preferences or opinions mined from the social or interest graphs; intent data collated via search or observable behavioural patterns; location and proximity data thrown off to location services; likeness information scraped from image and facial recognition services; transactional data from a wide variety of sources; contact history collected by integrated CRM and customer service systems; measures of influence across a network (albeit somewhat clunky)…

These “perceptive media” have traditionally been applied to our lives in networks. Pervasive computing now brings use of these techniques to the physical world.

Lenovo and Samsung have created TVs with front-facing cameras. Much like plugging in a Kinect, these networked TVs will provide a variety of options when it comes to video-calling remote friends and family. The same technology, already trialled in outdoor ad units, can estimate gender and age and customise the content viewed accordingly.

For marketers and advertisers, the benefits of applying these hitherto online-only techniques to “older” forms of paid-for media are huge. The experience of the pedestrian may be more Uncanny as the level of personalisation increases.

Imagine this scenario:

You’re researching haemorrhoid cream on your mobile on the bus into the city centre. Your interest in that subject could be registered as intent by a smart algorithm and trigger a cascade of behind-the-scenes media buys and automated content production. By the time you step off the bus, the network knows your name, location and probably why you’re there. Suddenly every screen seems to have someone looking like you on it, sitting down in perfect comfort on a sunny park bench. Your gaze lingers over-long on one particular screen that seems to show a park in your birth town. Your small smile is registered by the algorithm as a form of endorsement. It autoposts your endorsement of that particular haemorrhoid cream to your favourite professional networking site and sends an automatic discount to your mobile wallet with directions to the nearest stockist.

At present it’s an unlikely scenario, but unless personal privacy controls evolve with marketing techniques the city will seem increasingly Uncanny.

Photo credit: Andy Doyle