Issue 130 | The Hound: Entering The Uncanny Valley

By James Temperton 30.07.2006 13


James Temperton :: Issue 130 :: 30th July 2006

Industry analysis with added bite.

The Uncanny Valley is a term that is starting to emerge in videogames as photo-realism becomes more and more of a possibility. With the vast acceleration in graphical capabilities as we shoot into the next generation, human characters in videogames are becoming more and more realistic. The term was first coined in 1970 by roboticist Masahiro Mori in an article for the Japanese magazine Energy entitled Bukimi No Tani, which in English translates to The Uncanny Valley. Basically, Mori noticed the correlation between increased realism in robots and correlated this to the human reaction to them. What he discovered was that the closer robots resembled humans in terms of appearance, behaviour and motion, the more there was a feeling of discomfort and dislike towards them. Basically, when something attempts to look like a human when it quite blatantly isn't, it freaks us out. The resemblance may be uncanny, but we hate it all the same.

The case of The Uncanny Valley becomes all the more noticeable when you take a look at two recently released CGI films. First up, we have Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, released by Square Pictures in 2001, this was one of the first attempts to make a full CGI film that is photo-realistic. Apart from the obvious problem of the film being crap, with awful voice acting, a rubbish plot and action that is about as thrilling as watching paint drying in slow-motion, the film's main stumbling block was its use of CGI. Now, I know I'm not normally one to use graphs, but I'm going to just for this purpose. So, take a deep breath and enjoy the following...

Scary looking, isn't it? Let me simplify it a bit. As you can see, the solid line increases along the horizontal axis from the point 0% as the human likeness increases, the familiarity (or "cute-o-meter" as I shall dub it) rises to its highest point at stuffed animals, before plummeting as it reaches the uncanny valley. The dotted line (which represents things that move) shows that a humanoid robot is quite appealing, but the second the quite terrifying bunraku puppet (see the image at the top of this article) is considered, we get all freaked out and the dreaded uncanny valley emerges. Once again, something has become so realistic looking that it is frightening to us, it has no soul, its realism is to such an extent that it seems lifelike but in the same instance it seems dead and manufactured, there is something otherworldly about it all and quite frankly it gives me the willies.

Our minds are so finely tuned to recognise and read human faces, movement and personalities that the second something is even the tiniest bit wrong, it shows up like a flashing light with a siren attached. Basically, we know when something isn't real. When someone is using CGI to create a human face they have to get everything totally perfect or they will hit some massive problems. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had this exact problem, the layout of the human faces in the film was wrong, the way they interacted with their surroundings was wrong, the way they moved was wrong, it just looked so real but so fake at the same time. The error wasn't huge, but because of this slight deviation from what we recognise as being real, we find it utterly repulsive and disturbing.

The second obvious example is in the quite horrific Polar Express, a film that had critics shivering with a feeling of unease. There is something decidedly satanic about those little kids and the fact that most of the adults have a slight paedophilic glint in their soulless eyes only makes the experience all the more unnerving. You could see what the filmmakers were trying to do, they were trying to make it look magical and special, but in the end they just made it creepy. The Incredibles or even Toy Story handles the problem far better, but making humans and CGI characters looks stylised they are appealing to the stuffed toy loving part of our brains, we find it cool or cute rather than off-putting.

Stylised graphics have always formed a major part of videogames. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess looks very realistic and very graphically stunning, but it is also cartoon-like and comfortable because it is not attempting to create a photo-realistic world, particularly where the human characters are concerned. The art of good games development in recent years has been to create something that looks stunning but that doesn't freak people out and become uncanny. Capcom got it about right in Resident Evil 4, there was something about the characters that was comfortable and acceptable to the gamer, the same can be said for titles like Soul Calibur or even Halo. Slipping into The Uncanny Valley will not happen if developers maintain a style that is just offset from photo-realism. If they don't try to make a human character look real, we won't be put off by it, simple as that.

The problem is that videogames are getting more and more technologically advanced and they too are entering The Uncanny Valley, which is a very worrying place to be. We don't like it and people will not buy games that display it, just as they didn't go and see films that used it. For videogames, it is a genuine problem. We need to like characters and be able to relate to them, or at least not find them disturbing for all the wrong reasons. One particular example that stands out for me is the PS3 title Heavy Rain that was shown off in demo form at E3 2006, there is something deeply disturbing about the footage. I think for me it is that the sound of the woman talking is most definitely not coming from the lips that you see. Subconsciously we know this, a CGI character is not real and therefore cannot have a real voice, so when she starts speaking it is disconcerting. She just looks too real for my liking.

For the last decade, videogames have been striving for realism, but now it is something that is all the more possible, there is a point for major concern. As realism increases, the audience get more and more turned off by what they are seeing on screen. We only feel comfortable when something fake looks fake, not uncanny. People are scared of waxwork models, dolls, puppets and mannequins for very good reasons, they look like humans but you know full well they are not. For me, during the next generation, TUV will become a massive part of videogame development and could hinder the success of photo-realistic graphics. There is a natural instinct in our brain that makes us uneasy about things that fall into The Uncanny Valley and there is nothing that CGI artists or developers can do about it. You can't physically achieve total realism using computer graphics and so long as we know it isn't real (and we invariably will), we will find it uncanny.

Hound: "One Man and his dog went to a meadow, the dog got bored, ran back home and became a journo."

>> Hound Archive: Do the timewarp on previous issues of this column.

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Comments

Nice Hound some very good points

( Edited on 30.07.2006 14:53 by Mr.Ashcroft )


Mike Gee of iZINE said, "...The Verve, as he [Richard Ashcroft] promised, had become the greatest band in the world. Most of the critics agreed with him. Most paid due homage. The Verve were no longer the question mark or the clichť. They were the statement and the definition."

Good stuff James. Smilie

that was a really interesting article. weldone hound.

i never really thought about that before untill you mentioned it, Wax models are creepy because they look to real.
I dont fear Photo real Gaming because i doubt it will ever happen in my lifetime. No developer could afford it.

-Have you any idea what it's like to be a Fembot living in a Manbot's Manputer's world?
-What?

lol...Great article. I kind of agreed but thought it wasn't the big deal everyone was making it out to be until I found THIS!

Heavy Rain

Thank you for pointing it out...I am now truly horrified.
And now live in fear. Thank you and goodnight. Smilie

IANC said:
Dude yuor totally awesome. And i won't be killing you anytime soon.

What's so creepy about the Heavy Rain thing... I saw it weeks ago, I really don't find it that disturbing. Probably because I'm pretty screwed up myself...Smilie

~Getting on C3's massive tits since 2K5.~

Heavy Rain wasn't that bad, it didn't look that realistic to me though.

Interpol's video for Evil always struck me like they were embracing uncanny valley and using it to make the video weird.

TAG: That American Guy

"If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Romans 12:18

Never trust anything that looks human but isn't...

TAG said:
Heavy Rain wasnt that bad, it didnt look that realistic to me though.Interpols video for Evil always struck me like they were embracing uncanny valley and using it to make the video weird.

Great example..

IANC said:
Dude yuor totally awesome. And i won't be killing you anytime soon.

Nice one, good ideas - especially on the models - scary.

Cubed3 Admin/Founder & Designer

Good article, but I do have to disagree on one point. You say, "You can't physically achieve total realism using computer graphics and so long as we know it isn't real (and we invariably will), we will find it uncanny." That isn't perfectly true IMO. There is that fine line between something like DOA4 and perfect realism, something that a game like Heavy Rain falls right on. It's close to hitting perfect realism, something that we can be comfortable with, but falls short by just a slight amount. Personally I think it's the eyes.

Anyways, until computer processing power increases, and CG artists learn more about how the human face and body reacts, looks, etc., they won't be able to pass the Uncanny Valley. Eventually they will be able to do that though, with enough study of the human form and enough computer power. Until then though, the Uncanny Valley blocks us from achieving perfect realism in computer modelled characters.

Worker: But that wasn't in my job description.
Boss: Well your job description has just gotten enough exp. points to level up and now it's evolving.

Very good article. You hit the nail right on the head. This is a subject that I've been getting more and more concerned about with video games for the past few years. Heavy Rain freaked me out. It was definately unnerving.

Shamu200, you brought up something that I've been pondering for a while too. Will the progression of both technology, familiarity with the human likeness, movement and expression get to the point where we can overcome this "turn off"? If so, how long before all the necessary elements are mastered to achieve such a comfortable state in virtual likeness?

( Edited on 01.08.2006 02:40 by MechaG2 )

Chance favors the prepared mind.

MechaG2 said:
Very good article. You hit the nail right on the head. This is a subject that Ive been getting more and more concerned about with video games for the past few years. Heavy Rain freaked me out. It was definately unnerving.Shamu200, you brought up something that Ive been pondering for a while too. Will the progression of both technology, familiarity with the human likeness, movement and expression get to the point where we can overcome this turn off? If so, how long before all the necessary elements are mastered to achieve such a comfortable state in virtual likeness? ( Edited on 01.08.2006 02:40 by MechaG2 )

We just need a little more power (honestly we might be there, look at Fight Night on the 360, and it's still pretty early on in the life, not to mention the PS3 is supposed to be more powerful) and for the people making games to know more about the human anatomy and how it moves and the time and money to put the power and know how together.

They can do it in movies, it's just usually easier and cheaper to use a double or prop or something for most cases. But look at Gollum from LotR, that's life like!

But with Gollum, they could get away with more because he was a freaky looking dude and wasn't based soley on the human anatomy. But that was a few years ago.

TAG: That American Guy

"If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Romans 12:18

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