On the Media: The Uncanny Valley (animating the human face)

The expression of soul in a face. One really needs to remember that a face with a soulful expression can be painted, in order to believe that it is merely shapes and colors that make this impression. It isn’t to be believed, that it is merely the eyes — eyeball, lids, eyelashes etc. — of a human being, that one can be lost in the gaze of, into which one can look with astonishment and delight. And yet human eyes just do affect one like this. “From which you may see….”

— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol. I, §267

I thought some of you would be interested in a story that the radio show “On the Media” recently aired about “the uncanny valley.” To find out what the so-called “uncanny valley” is, listen to the show by clicking here. (Thanks to my colleagues Jim Shepard and Christopher Bolton for referring me to this episode.)

Here is an excerpt from the show’s transcript (and below that, a short video about the uncanny valley effect):

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes, it’s Oscar time. Avatar is the great blue whale the smaller films must beat. Among its qualities, the exquisite 3-D rendering of the Na’vi, the aliens we come to love.

Because they are aliens, filmmaker James Cameron was able to leap over the dangerous chasm into which many computer-driven movies fall, never to recover. It’s a fear-inducing phenomenon called the “uncanny valley.” On the Media’s Jamie York explains.

JAMIE YORK: In 2001, DreamWorks was paying approximately 60 million dollars for an animated movie about a green ogre named Shrek. And the animation brain trust tasked with making this 60-million-dollar investment pay dividends was well on their way.

Loveable, if grotesque, green ogre, check. Donkey sidekick that cracks wise, check. Fantastic world for everyone to inhabit, check. There was just one problem. In test screenings, the heroine, princess and motivating force behind the movie, was having a most unexpected effect.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: They were so good at doing what they were doing with the princess character that when they showed it to audiences of children, the children started crying and freaking out because there was something wrong.

JAMIE YORK: That’s Lawrence Weschler, a long-time journalist who wrote about this incident for Wired Magazine. It’s true, the animators of Shrek were so good, so sophisticated that they were scaring their intended audience. Why? Their princess had fallen into what’s known as the “uncanny valley.”

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Which was this notion by a Japanese roboticist named Masahiro Mori. The notion was that if you made a robot that was 50 percent lifelike, that was fantastic. If you made a robot that was 90 percent lifelike, that was fantastic. If you made it 95 percent lifelike, that was the best – oh, that was so great. If you made it 96 percent lifelike, it was a disaster. And the reason, essentially, is because a 95 percent lifelike robot is a robot that’s incredibly lifelike. A 96 percent lifelike robot is a human being with something wrong.

JAMIE YORK: Mori called it the uncanny valley, a play on Sigmund Freud’s idea of the uncanny: something familiar and yet foreign, at the same time.


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