19 February 2007

Crossing the Uncanny Valley

I'm always alert for neologisms and phrases of the moment. So when I heard the term "uncanny valley" recently I knew I had to blog about it. In case this isn't already part of your lexicon, I'll give a brief description, but the wikipedia article goes into much greater detail.

I encountered the term with regards to a new android built in South Korea: EveR-2 (the pictures may take some time to load, but it's worth it). The Uncanny Valley is not a physical place, but rather a "valley" on a graph. Specifically it's a graph for how humans respond to human-like creations. Along the x axis goes increasing human verisimilitude. Up along the y axis is increasing favorable emotional response. The idea is that as robots (or other human creations) acquire elements of human appearance we tend to respond more and more favorably to them. The graph starts to rise as it goes to the right. But at some point a sharp inflection is reached, and suddenly we begin to see the robot as grotesque and even monstrous. Thus the curve falls steeply below the baseline. However, as even more humanness is added to the creation, it becomes human looking enough to rise out of the valley, so to speak, and again we have a favorable response. The wikipedia article referenced above illustrates the curve and gives several examples.

What's interesting is that since this phenomenon was first described (1970!) it has expanded beyond robotics. Characters from modern films (ex: Gollum from LOTR), TV commercials, and video games can be examined in light of the uncanny valley hypothesis. Pixar, for example, has used the uncanny valley to make their villains seem especially grotesque. Several ideas on what causes the uncanny valley response are listed in the article. The one I find most compelling is from evolutionary psychology.

When I'm hit with a feeling of the uncanny valley I note that it is a strongly emotional response that simply wells up from some part of my brain. I can't really reason out why I have that response. One thing that does it for me are the Burger King commercials. For some reason the King character is extraordinarily horrid to me. But why? It's just a mask. The evolutionary psych explanation suggests that it is some very primitive part of my brain alerting me that there is something "wrong" with this being, and I should avoid it.

As many of this blog's readers and writers know, I spend more than a bit of time in Second Life. One would think that such a place would be deep in the Uncanny Valley. Surprisingly though, I find that this isn't the case. SL avatars rarely evoke that deep grotesque reaction, and in fact usually evoke favorable responses. There are, of course, exceptions. Every once in a while my avatar will do something that looks nasty. Usually this happens while standing on uneven terrain and one of my av's legs will suddenly shoot out sideways at a physiologically impossible angle. Or perhaps my av's knees will buckle and even bend backwards briefly. Then there are self-inflicted trips to the valley which are more funny than grotesque. Like when a newbie acquires a vehicle and doesn't know how to use it, so selects "wear". Suddenly they are wearing a full-size car around their head. This is especially hilarious if they do this in a crowded room. As their head turns the cars smacks everyone nearby.

I'll end with a link to an Uncanny Valley Expo for Second Life avs. Here the focus was on making your av give a very humanlike expression, coming up the far end of the valley back into the good zone. I didn't learn about this Expo in time or I would have sent in an entry myself. Many of the entries use a simple "emoter HUD" to create the facial expressions, and then rely on framing the shot and avatar position to convey body language.

-- Per

The market is Open.

1 comment:

Periapse said...

Here are a couple shots I would have contributed to the competition. The photos are of Savannah Nihilist, my alt.

Here I play with facial expression as well as standing pose: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/131/398984901_9c5c8ca7cc.jpg

In this one I'm wearing eyeglasses, tats, and a girlie kilt I found last week. This is more about attitude: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/154/398984893_0c48f7985c.jpg

Lastly, my favorite shot. Here I posed on a bench, but didn't use any emotes for facial expression:

I wanted to include some shots of my main av, Periapse Seattle, but frankly he's not nearly as photogenic as Sav. Maybe if I buy him some new hair...