Many of you readers are already familiar with the uncanny valley. If not, let me show you some pictures to set the mood.
The two images at the top (Homer Simpson, and the head by sculptor Ronald Mueck) were made with full awareness of the uncanny valley effect. Since the time I first wrote about this subject over ten years ago, I have witnessed a whole aesthetic emerge that intentionally plays on the phenomenon. It has become its own meme.
But creepiness is not necessarily what was intended in some of these unsettling images.
Often, the creep-factor results from an attempt to make something extremely realistic – like a humanoid robot or a realistic computer-generated human. Besides the Wikipedia page, I’d suggest taking a look at some of my previous thoughts on the subject: (Uncanny Charlie, and The Uncanny Valley of Expression).
Okay, now…on to the subject at hand:
Consider augmented reality, a technology that is still searching for deeper meanings other than…
As augmented reality demos get slicker, smoother, and more realistic, they have the danger of creeping closer to the uncanny valley. Why?
The fetish-like obsession with realism that has plagued so much of computer graphics throughout its history.
Now consider this video by Magic Leap.
It’s magical. But if you ask me – it’s also kind of unsettling.
To be sure: if a gravity-defying micro-elephant were to appear between my hands – THIS VIDEO SHOWS EXACTLY WHAT IT WOULD LOOK LIKE. But…why would a gravity-defying micro-elephant appear between my hands? I have no good answer other than…
But I’ll just leave it at that. Google pumped half a billion into Magic Leap, and they are talking about making educational apps (but aren’t we all anyway). So…hopefully, they are not just high on a newfound ability to trick the eye like never before, and actually have some non-geeky aspirations.
In a previous blog post, I put forth a general theory of the uncanny valley, describing it as:
“the phenomenon that occurs when incompatible levels of realism are juxtaposed in a single viewing experience. So for instance, an animated film in which the character motions are realistic – but their faces are abstract – can be creepy. How about a computer animation in which the rendering is super-realistic, but the motions are stiff and artificial? Creepola. A cartoon character where one aspect is stylized and other aspects are realistic looks…not right.”
I always like to bring up Scott McCloud regarding the language of abstraction, and how it can be used to leave room for the imagination to fill in the blanks. Abstraction (and cartoonification) can be used as an antidote to the uncanny valley. This might be why Polar Express tends to get more uncanny bad marks than Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
How Augmented Reality Isn’t “Real” Enough
Kevin Slavin makes a compelling argument in this video on how augmented reality is approaching the precipice of the Valley (it’s 27 minutes long, but if you are interested in this topic, give it a watch).
Aversion to the uncanny valley is why I choose to use cartoony characters in augmented reality, as shown in the video at right, in which Peanut Boy thanks our Kickstarter backers for funding our augmented reality book.
Averting an Uncanny Future
From one perspective, humanity seems to have an unending appetite for blending the virtual and the real, and for pushing the realism of virtual reality. If this is the case, the uncanny valley will be with us for a long time – perhaps forever (because our ability to discern real from fake improves along with the moving target).
But there is another possible future: keeping nature and artifice separate, both in terms of achieving a healthy, truthful relationship with nature, and in terms of art, media, and technology-enhanced work and play. It’s important, in my opinion, to keep reminding ourselves that the goal in life is not to live inside of a hallucination.