The Uncanny Valley

Looking back at screenshots of some of the original video arcade games, and comparing them to the increasingly realistic imagery of games on the latest generation consoles, it is difficult not to be amazed at how much the visual appearance of the games has evolved. The advances in both computer hardware design and software development mean that today’s games hold the promise of photorealistic views in the not too distant future. But is this desirable? (see for example: Videogame Aesthetics: The Future).

Even animated movements themselves are becoming more realistic, through the use of motion capture techniques (as described in Realistic Movement with Motion Capture). However, when the motion capture to animation technique is not quite right, then the resulting animation can feel very off-putting.

For example, in the CGI movie Polar Express, audiences were left feeling uncomfrtable by much of the animation, as this post by animator Ward Jenkins describes: The Polar Express: A Virtual Train Wreck (conclusion).

This effect has come to be known as the uncanny valley.

Taken from:

The still unproven “uncanny valley” effect was coined by Japanase roboticist Mashahiro Mori, based on his observations about peoples’ emotional response to robotic or animated representations of living things. The claim goes that we are likely to have an increasingly positive emotional response to a representation as it becomes increasingly lifelike until something ‘not quite right’ (i.e. unnatural, or ‘uncanny’) comes to our attention, at which point we become negatively disposed to, or even repulsed by, the object in question.

Read this article on The Uncanny Valley by Masahiro Mori (1970) Energy, 7(4), pp. 33-35 [Translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato].

Have you ever experienced the uncanny valley effect, for example, when watching a photoreaslistic computer generated animation?

(See more “motion portrtait” animations here: Motion Portrait; or a full screen version of the above animation that follows your mouse cursor…)

As gamemakers pursue photorealism, there is the danger that their game characters will put off potential players if they stray into the uncanny valley, as Clive Thompson warns in his 2005 Wired magazine commentary “Monsters of Photorealism”.

For example, in Looking at Movies: The Uncanny Valley, an essay critiquing Polar Express, as well as other CGI movies, from the perspective of the uncanny valley, we get the following observation:

When applied to special effects in movies, the implications of the uncanny valley are clear: if a filmmaker strives for a very high level of verisimilitude in computer-generated characters, they may risk taking the humanlike resemblance too far, causing viewers to notice every detail of the characters’ appearance or movement that doesn’t conform to the way real human beings actually look or move. Our emotional response to these “almost human” characters will therefore be unease and discomfort, not pleasure or empathy.

If the filmmaker decides instead to render characters in a more stylized manner, clearly signaling that they are not supposed to appear “almost human,” we will notice, paradoxically enough, all the aspects of their appearance and behavior that resemble human beings, and we will be more likely to perceive these characters as more complex and more “human” characters than the characters that are designed to look nearly human.

We can extend the concept even further to acknowledge that, when an animated object or a creature that is clearly not human is shown onscreen exhibiting certain human traits or emotions, we may actually feel more sympathetic to that creature than we do to overly detailed “human” animated characters.

James Portnow takes a similar viewpoint with respect to games in this article: GAME DESIGN: The Uncanny Valley.

As computer animations – and robots – get ever more realistic, we naturally get more opportunities to test out the validity of the Uncanny Valley Hypothesis…

To what extent do you think that the uncanny valley is a plausible theory? In what ways do you think that computer games may be susceptible to the uncanny valley effect? If computer game characters can wander into the uncanny valley, so what?

See also: In Search of the Uncanny Valley, F.E.Pollick, published in USER CENTRIC MEDIA, Lecture Notes of the Institute for Computer Sciences, Social Informatics and Telecommunications Engineering, 2010, Volume 40, Part 4, 69-78, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-12630-7_8


3 Responses to “The Uncanny Valley”

  1. 1 Tony Hirst April 25, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    See also:

    ‘Intelligent Mistakes: How to Incorporate Stupidity Into Your AI Code’ [ ] which describes how AI controlled characters sometimes need to be programmed so that they behave as stupidly as real people do, particularly when it comes to assessing things like risk (for example, in gambling games).

  2. 2 Matthew May 23, 2010 at 8:08 am

    well i would say that for most films and games the uncanny Vally would not go down well, if a play hates looking at the faces then they wont play the game, But!!! on the other hand game designers could use the uncanny Vally to an advantage.
    In games that are designed to scare the player the uncanny Vally would do well in setting a players Emotional mood, for example.
    Your in a hunted fair ground trying to find someone? You deal with monsters ,zombies ect. Now imagine that you enter the clown tent, you already on edge due to previous monsters you have encountered plus the music is slow and edgy (resident evil comes to mind). You now are faced with a clown were the facial features have stopped being the stander animation you see these days to uncanny Vally. This boosts the evil clowns effectiveness as it were as being scary.
    So uncanny Vally could be at some point an advantage to an animator/designer.

  3. 3 James October 29, 2010 at 10:13 am

    I agree, I think the Uncanny Valley could be used to your (the game makers) advantage.

    I think that the theory is quite a solid one. Most people seem to subconciousally notice small changes in things/people they are around even if they don’t realise it themselves.

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