Welcome to The Uncanny Valley - a disturbing place where everyone looks human - but not quite human enough.
The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the fields of psychology and human aesthetics which seeks to explain why we do not feel completely at ease with objects which attempt to appear as natural human beings.
These objects, which attempt to create a human face or body from artificial means, often appear to broadly cohere to a human form - they have two eyes, a nose, mouth, etc. - however, they still fall short and can actually cause revulsion in human beings.
Building The Uncanny Valley
The name, which was first coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, refers to the severe dip in acceptance which occurs in humans when presented with something which appears to look and move like humans, but not exactly.
The theory states that if a robot is made to appear humanoid in shape - for example with Honda's ASIMO robot - it will engender a positive and emphatic reaction from humans. However, if that likeness is taken further and you try to make a robot appear actually human, there is a rapid drop off in acceptance and an increase in revulsion, for example with Repliee Q2 (above).
However, this phenomenon isn't just linked to robotics. It also crops up frequently in computer animation, especially in movies and games which attempt to replicate, as accurately as possible, human faces and emotions, for example Mars Needs Moms, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Beowulf. Indeed, one reviewer claimed that the monster in Beowulf, Grendel, was "only slightly scarier" than the "closeups of our hero Beowulf’s face... allowing viewers to admire every hair in his 3-D digital stubble."
The effect also seemed particularly present in animated family flick, The Polar Express. Several reviewers commented on the 'deadness' of the characters' faces, despite the fact they were emoting at the time. Paul Clinton explained:
Those human characters in the film come across as downright... well, creepy. So The Polar Express is at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying.
Why The Revulsion?
So, why do we find these close, but not close enough, efforts so uncomfortable? Well, there's no agreement on that answer, instead researchers have suggested a range of possibilities. One line of thought suggests it could be evolutionary, that it causes a response from the unconscious part of our brain designed to help us pick mates, form connections with other members of the species, and also avoid illness and pathogens. Basically, if we see someone who doesn't look quite right, it could be because they are ill or weak.
Another line suggests it could be learned behavior, suggesting these creations can offend our pre-programmed norms regarding perception, morality, and even religious ideas of what constitutes a human - therefore resulting in revulsion.
How to Prevent The Uncanny Valley? Just Add Water... To the Eyes!
However, could that be about to change? As technology advances, the possibility of accurately rendering a human face with all its pimples, imperfections and changes in color and texture, could become a possibility.
Take for example this new test footage from animator Chris Jones. Using a combination of Lightwave, Sculptris, and Krita, Jones created 'Ed' - a disembodied head who at first glance almost appears to be a photorealistic recreation of a human face. Check it out below:
OK, so it's still not perfect, but I think we have managed to haul ourselves out of the uncanny valley somewhat. The major development for me is the fact the eyes appear watery and reflective, and not simply the black orbs we're used to seeing. It makes it appear that there is actually life behind them, don't you think?
One line of thought concerning the uncanny valley states that its effect will be much reduced in current and future generations, since these individuals have increasingly interacted and empathized with non-organic representations of humans, be it through video games or digital media and displays.
But what do you think? Do you believe in the uncanny valley? Are you also creeped out by imperfect renderings of a human face?
What do you think of 'Ed'?