And in virtual worlds, we want our avatars to look marvelous.
In both form and motion, we want them to possess beauty and grace. We want people to gasp at their originality and for virtual heads to turn when we walk into a virtual room.
And we want them to look as lifelike as possible.
But there’s a catch. As our avatars march forward into a bright future of ever-increasing realism, we’re going to face a major obstacle.
The Uncanny Valley describes a phenomenon involving changes in our emotional response to simulated humans as the simulations become more realistic. When it was first written about back in the 70′s, it was initially applied to robotics. But over time, people noticed that it also applied to our emotional response to computer generated models of humans. Such as avatars.
It goes like this. As the realism of a simulated human increases, we tend to have an increasingly positive emotional response to it. But we eventually reach a point at which the simulated human looks “very close but not quite right.” And this causes a dramatic negative emotional response. We immediately feel revulsion.
Remember the movie Polar Express? That’s a perfect example of the Uncanny Valley. The characters are pretty realistic but seem a bit “off,” and we tend to feel creeped out by them in a very visceral way. Watch this clip and you’ll see what I mean. And I bet you can remember other movies involving computer animated humans that evoke a similar feeling.
Fortunately, there’s a bright side. Continue to dial up the realism, and we eventually pull out of the nosedive of negative emotional response. We start to feel good again about the simulated human we are observing.
This graph illustrates the effect.
A great deal has been written about the Uncanny Valley. There’s lots of discussion about it in video games, as well as research on its theoretical basis and the cognitive mechanism underlying the phenomenon. But for this discussion, let’s explore a couple broad solutions.
The obvious solution to the Uncanny Valley is to continue increasing the realism of simulated human beings.
Computing technology continues to increase in power. The graphics processing and rendering capabilities of the machines sitting on our desks makes it easier and easier to create lifelike simulations of human beings. Inevitably, we’ll reach a point where we simply cannot tell the difference between simulated humans and the real thing. You can already see this starting to happen in movies where CG actors are used as stunt doubles, executing action sequences that would be impossible for a real human.
But there’s another path through the Uncanny Valley. And it involves thinking deeply about what it really means to “look marvelous” to another human being.
The non-obvious solution to the Uncanny Valley is to make simulated human beings more accurately reflect how we see ourselves.
Scott McCloud is a brilliant cartoonist and theorist on the medium of comics. One of my favorite books of all times is his Understanding Comics, an amazing exploration of the vocabulary of comics and its use as a communications medium. It’s also an essential resource for anyone interested in designing graphic user interfaces. The fact that the book is disguised as a fun-to-read comic book makes it even better.
But while we’re busily noticing this “Otherly” quality in the person we’re conversing with, we are constantly maintaining an image of our *own* face in our *own* mind.
And this imagining of our own face is always much more abstract than the face of the person we are talking to. It’s cartoonish. When you imagine yourself smiling, you imagine a cartoonish version of yourself smiling without the nitty gritty details of your own face in reality.
McCloud argues it is for this reason that the simplicity and abstractness of cartoon faces makes them so appealing. We deeply empathize with them because they map directly to our imagining of our own face. Which explains why some of the most loved cartoon characters in the world are the simplest of all. We don’t see them as “Otherly.” We see them as a mirror of ourselves.
Success is usually found in happy mediums.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, being human is what happens when human minds touch other minds. And building empathic understanding between avatars is a critical part of making those connections (which I discussed in yet another post).
So perhaps the way to best solve the Uncanny Valley in virtual worlds is to find a happy medium between increased realism and thoughtful abstractness for avatars.
Anime and manga artists figured this out long ago. If you look closely at anime and manga artwork, you’ll notice how the faces and body language of characters frequently shift between realism and crazy abstractedness.
Imagine applying a similar technique to avatars in virtual worlds.
And this could work wonders for people using non-human avatars, since it is almost impossible for a truly realistic animal face to convey subtle human emotions. They simply lack the facial anatomy.
For example, the rabbit avatar you are communicating with might have a very lifelike and realistic appearance. But when Mr. Rabbit wants to convey a complex facial expression like distrust or skepticism, his face could subtly morph into an abstracted cartoonish expression that instantly evokes a sense of understanding and empathy in the observer. Clever designers of “furry” avatars in Second Life already use some of these techniques, and they are a great group of pioneers to watch for ideas.
We all want to look good. And a key part of looking good is to make it easy for other people to empathize with us. The development of avatars in virtual worlds gives us a fascinating opportunity to explore not only how we look, but how can cultivate other people’s reflections of themselves.
This gives new meaning to Billy Crystal’s memorable quote:
“When I look into your eyes, darling, I see the reflection of me. Look at me dancing around in there. I look marvelous! Absolutely marvelous!”
-John “Pathfinder” Lester