June 10, 2004
The Uncanny Valley
In 1978, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori noticed something interesting: The more humanlike his robots became, the more people were attracted to them, but only up to a point. If an android become too realistic and lifelike, suddenly people were repelled and disgusted.
The problem, Mori realized, is in the nature of how we identify with robots. When an android, such as R2-D2 or C-3PO, barely looks human, we cut it a lot of slack. It seems cute. We don’t care that it’s only 50 percent humanlike. But when a robot becomes 99 percent lifelike — so close that it’s almost real — we focus on the missing 1 percent. We notice the slightly slack skin, the absence of a truly human glitter in the eyes. The once-cute robot now looks like an animated corpse. Our warm feelings, which had been rising the more vivid the robot became, abruptly plunge downward. Mori called this plunge “the Uncanny Valley,” the paradoxical point at which a simulation of life becomes so good it’s bad.
(Here’s a page with graphs to explain it, courtesy of one of Clive’s commenters.)
Moving beyond the U.V., Clive’s central thesis seems to be that video game developers’ efforts to create ever-more-lifelike 3D characters has basically just given us a parade of scary, zombie-eyed skin-puppets. He sez:
Every highly realistic game has the same problem. Resident Evil Outbreak’s humans are realistic, but their facial expressions are so deadeningly weird they’re almost scarier than the actual zombies you’re fighting. The designers of 007: Everything or Nothing managed to take the adorable Shannon Elizabeth and render her as a walleyed replicant.
Now, make no mistake: The Playstation 8 will be rendering characters so sublimely realistic, so human, that they make us feel like walleyed replicants.
But is that even a worthwhile goal?
Clive mentions Scott McCloud in his article. McCloud’s book “Understanding Comics” was the first place I ran into a concept which is a sort of corollary to the Uncanny Valley. Call it Lake Empathy: If a character is very simple, more iconic than realistic, it’s much easier for people to pour themselves into it — to view it not as a third party, but instead as a personal avatar.
For example, you probably see more of yourself in the character to the left than in the character to the right:
And, more to the point, you see a lot more of yourself in either of those than in this, er, character:
This is the genius of cartoons, and comics. There’s a reason Japanese cartoon characters have such open, simple faces. And there’s a reason children love cartoons in general. (Well, maybe. That’s McCloud’s assertion. I kinda suspect there’s some child development expert out there who’ll be like: “No! I showed four-hundred babies ‘The Golden Girls’ and their blink-response rate was 1.5 times higher for Bea Arthur than for any other TV character, including Spongebob and Voltron! All children must be shown images of Bea Arthur!!”)
So if simpler, more abstract — even artful — characters are more effective, why not focus on those? Why not harness the power of game systems not for ever-creepier corpse-people, but for cool, creative experiments like “Viewtiful Joe”?
There are signs the video game industry is already doing this. One is, umm, “Viewtiful Joe.” Another is today’s news from Nintendo re: their next console:
As first reported by Associated Press, Iwata refused to give details on the machine for fear that competitors might steal the plan, but stated that a prototype being shown for the first time next year will deliver “new ideas” for entertainment and will certainly not just be a more powerful version of the GameCube.
… The crisis, as far as Iwata is concerned, is that the game industry can no longer rely on dazzling consumers with increasingly sophisticated visuals. He cited the fact that game sales have been steadily declining for years in Japan, and that growth in the US market is slowing.
The machine is code-named “Revolution.”