The Uncanny Valley: Where Creepy Meets Cool

Creepy-Cool

As we’ve discussed at length in class, the struggle companies face between offering “services” that could be perceived as either creepy or cool, is an increasingly prevalent issue.  For example, some might view the new iPhone’s facial recognition feature as innovative and convenient, while others may see it as a grave security issue. For instance, if there was ever a data breach (which, given the times and trends, seems likely), we can’t just all get new faces like we can get new email passwords.  However, while this tension may be coming up more frequently, it is by no means a new issue.  The iPhone has had a finger print passcode for years, and this feature was likely met with the same resistance, but now nearly everyone uses this with full awareness that they can’t get new fingers if the “finger-print database” is hacked.

finger print.jpg iphone-face-recognition.jpg

Treading the line between creepy and cool is an issue more and more technology companies are grappling with as products and services adapt increasingly humanistic traits. But what we don’t usually think about is how this issue pertains to the art of animation.  If you’ve seen The Polar Express, you have experienced the Uncanny Valley whether you are aware of it or not.  It’s the chills you felt in your spine when you saw the human characters move; something just feels…not quite right. But you can’t put your finger on it.

The Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny Valley describes the line in animation where cool crosses over into creepy.  As animation technology has advanced over the years, animators have been able to make human characters look more and more realistic.  The problem is that almost realistic can be worse than not realistic at all.  As animations approach a certain point of humanness, the elements that are not human become more apparent, which makes it fall off the precipice of “cool” and into the Uncanny Valley.

A psychologist at Dartmouth College, Thalia Wheatley, offers an interesting explanation for why almost-but-not-quite humanness creeps us out.  She says, “Evolutionary history has tuned us to detect minor distortions that indicate disease, mental or physical problems.  To go after a human-looking robot or avatar is to go up against millions of years of evolutionary history.”

The following graph illustrates how the Uncanny Valley works.  An animation, robot, or other human substitute is acceptable when it is very clearly not real.  As its human likeness increases, so does its familiarity or acceptability—but only up to a certain point.  Once it reaches a point of human likeness with some key human elements missing or “off,” it falls victim to the Uncanny Valley.  Only once full human likeness is achieved will it reach a point of full acceptability and “pleasantness” to the viewer.

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Animation Failures

  • The Polar Express: This Christmas movie became infamous for managing to make kids cry (and not for sentimentality or love of Christmas). A CNN report claimed this this movie should be called “The Night of the Living Dead.” The resemblance of these animated humans to real humans is close, but something about the way they move and interact with the world makes ultra-realistic feel ultra-disturbing.

polar express 1.jpg

  • Tin Toy: This 1988 Pixar short features the world’s creepiest robot-baby. Ironically, it won the award for Best Animated Short Film that year, likely not for it’s realism but more because this film was pushing and defining the boundaries of a newly emerging digital animation industry.

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  • Toy Story 3: Ok, this isn’t really a failure. Pixar was actually smart in using the Uncanny Valley to intentionally achieve the creepy effect they wanted.

toy story baby 1.jpg

Today’s Issues Facing the Uncanny Valley

Though the Uncanny Valley has been most prevalent in animation, it is now coming into play as robots become a new “segment” of modern society. If they are designed to appear human, designers will need to be careful to either make their features and movements indistinguishable from humans or very clearly not human. That fine line is the difference between a happy, smiling kid on Christmas day and the stuff that nightmares are made of.

A couple weeks ago I was walking through the Prudential Center when I came across the following robot.

It was interesting to watch people react and interact with this robot.  My own experience closely mirrors that which is shown in the video: little kids tend to run up and give it a hug, whereas the man interviewed was very tentative and kept his distance. Comparing the reactions between people from different generations is very telling.  Toddlers are growing up with this technology and a different status quo than the 30(ish) year old man did.  This robot is a perfect case study to demonstrate how the line between creepy and cool has been pushed farther as technology becomes a more focal part of our lives.  What we find creepy now might not be such a big deal in a generation.  As companies experiment with where to draw the line, they will likely be met with some resistance by people who don’t know this as the status quo.  But, I believe eventually, this new line will become the baseline. Creepy robots may just be…robots.

5 comments

  1. Wow this is a really interesting post – I had no idea that there was an actually phrase to describe that line between almost realistic human animation vs. not realistic animation, and I can totally relate to experiencing this “Uncanny Valley”. My question to you then is would you rather have the animation advance to be able to push past this “Uncanny Valley”, where it becomes impossible to distinguish human from animation, (for me that pushes the creepy-cool line as well) or would you rather have animators “underperform” in a way so that animations actually look like animations. Not sure if that fully made sense but just some thoughts I had while reading your post. Overall, super super interesting!!

  2. Wow I never knew being creeped out by human-like animations was a phenomenon! This makes me wonder if some of our most prevalent animations today intentionally do not perfectly resemble humans. For instance, emjois and Bitmojis both display human equivalents, but they clearly are more of a picture than a real human. Since brands always seek to strengthen their relationship with their consumer, you would think that they would try to capitalize on this human equivalent such as when we used to play Wiii. Since many of your examples are from the early 2000s, this makes me wonder if the trend toward the “Uncanny Valley” has deteriorated over time intentionally from this, or if its simply because we post too many pictures of ourselves online!

  3. Nice post. I do agree that the uncanny valley is very similar to that creepy-cool line that we’ll keep running into through the semester. It’s funny to think that what got me into this field was when Facebook Newsfeed was considered that line. It seems so quaint today!

  4. Wow I’ve been waiting for someone to address how creepy the Polar Express characters look! The “Uncanny Valley” is a very interesting concept especially today when there are definitely the resources and technology to make characters look completely realistic. However, it must be difficult to find the right balance between animation and a realistic representation. There is also a population of people who want the old way of animation (for example, Rick and Morty fans) so animators have to be careful of who their audience is.

  5. Interesting post. I have always wondered why animated television shows, movies, and games always tried to make the characters obviously unhuman – this is a great explanation of why! Humans are indeed very good at identifying faults in things and it is easy to understand why these instances appear on the creepy/cool line.

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