18 November 2004

The Uncanny Valley

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:47 pm

kids.jpgI’ve just seen a few extracts from the new computer-animated Tom Hanks vehicle (is there anything he can’t do?), The Polar Express, and I’m already freaked out. Still images don’t fully convey the horror of these almost-perfect-yet-deeply-wrong CGI children adrift in their winter wonderland; you should have a look at the commercials yourself if you’ve got the bandwidth. In the meantime I’m going to declare over-rendered digital humans the scary clowns of the new millennium.

I think this is clearly an example of the Uncanny Valley, which should be a suburb of Adelaide but isn’t: it’s that sudden dip in our emotional response to things that look almost human but are clearly not human, first proposed by Japanese robot-guy Masahiro Mori. The idea is that humans have an increasingly warm response to robots as they become less obviously machine-like and more human, but as soon as they get too human we’re repulsed and shut down completely until they become virtually indistinguishable from humans, after which we’re all OK again. I think that this is a pretty neat explanation for the fact that animated bugs, clownfish, ogres and whatnot (as well as conventionally 2D animated humans, and I suppose puppets) can touch and move us as “real” people, but where the aim is to try to look as close to reality as possible the effect is eerie and repellent. Unless it’s just me.

For some reason this issue has worked the Wikipedia crowd into a lather, with some guy swearing up and down that computer animation has nothing to do with the unfortunate Valley, including because “Google search doesn’t show any evidence [of the connection]&#8221. Maybe this is one of the areas where collaborative drafting falls down. Further investigation reveals that a lot of people have already linked the new movie to the old valley, so maybe we should just leave it, eh.

One Response to “The Uncanny Valley”

  1. di Says:

    were the simpsons animators thinking of the valley when they decided to make them all yellow and 3/4 fingered?

    also, is there a reverse valley effect do you think? – the jocelyn wildenstein /michael jackson plastic surgery thing. I reckon thats almost as creepy.

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