The depths of the uncanny valley

You play video games, but do you have any idea how those video games are affecting you?

They do, whether it's the subconscious way in which violence triggers chemicals in your brain, or your automatic repulsion at a game character that doesn't look quite human. With these ongoing reports, sister site GameSpot will investigate how video games really impact our lives -- how they are changing our culture, what they're doing to our brains, and what this all means for people who play video games.

Image of the Uncanny Valley, courtesy of Karl MacDorman.
Click here to enlarge.

Becoming uncanny
In 1970, roboticist Masahiro Mori published an article in the Japanese magazine Energy titled "Bukimi No Tani" (English translation: "The Uncanny Valley") detailing an observation that he had made from his experience working with humanlike robots. Mori noted that the more closely robots approximated human appearance and behaviour, the more familiar they seemed to a human observer, until a point at which they resembled humans closely, but not perfectly. At this point, people would begin to react negatively to robots, citing feelings of eeriness or discomfort about their appearance. He called it "the uncanny valley", because of the way a graph depicting the correlation between familiarity and human likeness would dip suddenly and drastically, just before reaching perfect mimicry of the human appearance.

As technology improves and entertainment media such as movies and video games are able to more closely approximate realism, humanoid characters get dangerously close to what Mori described. For example, take a look at some of the most negative reviews that the motion picture The Polar Express received. The film attempted to create a highly realistic look through computer-generated imagery (CGI), but missed a few key points, such as the depiction of the characters' eyes and skin, which made them seem more doll-like than human, causing an involuntary repulsion among viewers.

So how does the uncanny valley work? Is it science? What are the factors that contribute to uncanniness -- this unusual quality of realistic-looking characters that can seem so discomforting when we see them in action? Mori's observation may have opened up the discussion about this concept, but it left most of these questions unanswered. Only recently have scientists and roboticists begun to uncover the methodology and reasoning behind the uncanny valley, and in turn, how we can circumvent it.

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