Friday, February 13, 2009

Other: When Crappy Means Creepy

The December 2008 print issue1 of Scientific American had a short article2 on "the uncanny valley," roboticist Masahiro Mori's term for the idea that, the more human a facsimile is, the more uneasy a viewer gets when the copy does something that isn't quite human enough.
My first job out of school was at a digital effects company. Afterwards I would go around complaining about bad CGI3, whether it was crappy texture mapping or unrealistic animation. When George "I Live On My Own Little Planet Which Bears No Resemblance To This One Although I Sometimes Get The Two Confused" Lucas gave the original Star Wars trilogy that awful facelift, I remember seeing the digitally-added stormtroopers moving around Tatooine, getting on and off those big honking animals. They moved too smoothly. True human movement is punctuated by slight jerks and pauses. I shouldn't have noticed that, but it detracted from the viewing experience because it was noticeable. Well, ok, I shouldn't have noticed it because I should have known better than to go see it.

The print article also has a sidebar about "The Polar Express," "a movie criticized for its characters’ high creep quotient," on the second page of the web article. While the article attributes the movie's creepiness to the characters' incomplete verisimilitude4 to real humans, I personally find it much creepier that they thought it was a good idea to have Tom Hanks' voice coming out of so many different almost-but-not-quite-human mouths.

"Uncanny valley" becomes more pertinent because not only have the number of computer-generated human-like representations on TV and in the movies, increasingly realistic video game animations, and the possibility for more human-like robots in our everyday world increased, but as the article explains:
Prosthetics and genetic engineering may affect appearance; even now the work of cosmetic surgeons can yield an unease reminiscent of the valley. One blogger placed Madonna -— after requisite face-lifts, Botox injections and photo retouching -— at the exact spot on Mori’s graph once occupied by the handicapped, which is near the bottom of the valley (but usually replaced today by a prosthetic hand for political correctness).
So, there you have it. The term for the day is "uncanny valley." Now go off and just toss it into a conversation somewhere.

(As an only slightly relevant aside, last night Steve, his wife Teresa, and I were watching the John Woo Chinese film "Red Cliff," which is apparently based on a video game, which is apparently based on factual history.5 While it has some very good CGI, it is still clearly computer-generated. Horses turned too smoothly, the water didn't behave like water, etc.)

1Which means I'm only two months behind! Which adds up to about 3 or 4 print issues....
2The web edition seems to have the full text, but omits the graphics, including the not-so-scientific chart Mori made to illustrate his idea, which I've borrowed here from the Wikipedia article.
3Computer-Generated Images, not Common Gateway Interface, which I am sad to say I now use more often in my real life.
4Yes, I spelled it right on the first try! Nyah!
5I won't go into how we apparently only had the first part of the movie, a fact Steve and I weren't aware of until It Just Ended. Not in an obvious, "this is a cliffhanger so go see the sequel" fashion, but just, bam! Teresa: "Yeah, the second part isn't even finished yet." Thanks for the warning!6
6Not to mention, what the hell is up with John Woo and pigeons?


spajadigit said...

You're right, I love the phrase uncanny valley. I might have even blogged about it myself, although I had never heard that Madonna was down there in then valley herself!

spajadigit said...

You should throw a footnote on to footnote number five, because you did go into it! ;)

Karen said...

We are so totally watching more Tick cartoons next time.

And added footnote number 6 for you.

o14thegirl said...

I couldn't tell the difference...

Karen said...

Actually, maybe it would be even more politically correct to replace the "prosthetic hand" label on the chart with "Madonna."