Sunday, January 31, 2016

Down In The Valley

     Have you ever seen anything creepy or felt creeped out? And I'm not talking about when you're at the bar with your friends and some greasy guy keeps leaning over trying to smooth talk you with 90's pick up lines. No, I am talking about things such as robots, dolls, toys, and animations? If so, there is an actual term for that: uncanny valley.
     Uncanny valley was identified by Masahiro Mori in 1970. His hypothesis basically stated that as a robot became more human, it became easier for humans to react positively and with emotion, but once the robot became too human looking, we lost that emotional connection and became revolted. It is a literal valley that looks like this. Or this. And this.
     Have you even seen The Polar Express and thought the characters looked super creepy? Of course you have, and you're not alone: it's uncanny valley. See, the characters in Polar Express were animated with motion capture technology instead of traditional "build models in the computer" technology. The results made the characters look more life like. This scares us because we know they aren't real, but yet they look real, making us uncomfortable. Violet from The Incredibles doesn't necessarily look creepy because even though shes humanlike, she's more obvious to be a cartoon. Take a look at Hero Girl from Polar Express though. Yikes. Or Lonely Billy. Double yikes. Or that hobo on top of the train. I'm going to need to order more "yikes" from Amazon. They make you feel uncomfortable because we know they aren't real, but they just look too real. The movie Mars Needs Moms had the same issue. And so did Beowulf and Christmas Carol. Motion capture for animation has pretty much died, and for good reason.
     Movies are not the only ones with this problem though. Video games are starting to encounter this problem with their ultra-realistic graphics. Uncanny valley is a major reason why humanoid robots still haven't made a breakthrough. We're 100 percent fine with having this at home, but who in the world is ready to come home with this sitting on the couch!?!? Or this, or this? I don't know about you, but I'd feel like they'd be ready to eat me as soon as I lock the door (okay not really, but it's just soo creepy). Getting internet ads tailored to your location and what types of sites you've been on is already creepy enough.
     Now obviously personal robots have potential to be a huge industry; this is 2016 after all. It's the future. Because of that, many robotics experts want to get rid of the "uncanny valley" term. They say we shouldn't be afraid of personal robots just because they look human. Okay, but why do they need to look human is my question? Why not Sonny from I Robot? While he may give off a slight uncomfort, I would be totally okay with Sonny sitting on the couch when I got home. Uncanny valley isn't something we can just drop and forget. It's unconscious; that's how we're wired. Uncanny valley can get broad. Vsauce offers a great explanation. Masks, moods, and an inability to see and read faces all plays into uncanny valley.
     Remember the climax scene in Toy Story where the toys revealed themselves to Sid and pretty much scarred him for life? You have uncanny valley and an unapologetic Pixar to thank (seriously, poor, young Sid could've went insane after that experience). PS. Looking back at it, geez that movie was one 90-minute uncanny valley itself...still one best animated movies ever though.

*Disney's Toy Story, Vsauce, Columbia's I Robot, Buzzfeed, MTB Europe, ECN Mag, Disney's A Christmas Carol, Paramount's Beowulf, Pixar's The Incredibles, Warner Brother's The Polar Express, Mass Effect, The Punchline is Maschismo

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