The depths of the uncanny valley

Ubisoft animators aim for both believability and realism in games like Assassin's Creed.
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Dealing with uncanniness
But it takes more than just feedback to get past the uncanny valley. Animators must deal with the phenomenon head-on, working to combat it from the beginning, not only by creating realistic-looking humans and animating them well, but also by making sure that the level of realism present is both believable and fun. Tory cites the uncanny valley as a hurdle in achieving realism with Assassin's Creed but distinguishes reality from believability, which is an equally if not more important goal. "Animating something that's believable gives you a bit of room for texturing a movement than simply making something that's realistic. A character that's realistic will seem to have ticked off a checklist of human characteristics, but a believable one will display nuances and subtleties that make them seem unique and alive." Tory notes that weight and timing are some of the most important aspects that contribute to a character's believability, and that hands are the most difficult part of the human body to animate.

Ubisoft has a good track record for believability, particularly with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which was critically lauded for its excellence in animation. Alex Drouin, the Animation Artistic Director on both Sands of Time and Assassin's Creed, reveals some of the tricks they used to achieve such a full range of fluid animations. "Everything was hand animated in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. We used a lot of 'blending' of animations to get specific effects and a wider range of possibilities, and different kinds of interpolations to fluidly link different moves together. We used the same tools for Assassin's Creed but we added full body IK (inverse kinematics) and a rag doll tool." These tools helped the Ubisoft animators create a game that looked both believable and realistic, without getting bogged down in the kind of realism that would make the game unenjoyable. Focusing on believability helped them to achieve their animation goals with Sands of Time, and the result was a very attractive and well-animated game.

Out of the valley ... for good?
So how does the future of research and technology help to resolve the problems of the uncanny valley once and for all? MacDorman hope his research will lay the groundwork for combating the uncanny valley, by narrowing down all of the factors that contribute to it and giving us a better understanding of all of the nuances that control our perception of a realistic human. "We know that the human brain doesn't even register many kinds of gaps in visual information. We don't notice that we have a blind spot. We don't notice when we blink. We don't notice floaters, particles of dust moving on the cornea. There would be no point in filling in details that we don't notice. Therefore, we need to identify what we do notice, and to fix that part, and this may not so much require new technologies as an improved application of existing technologies." But having new technology will help developers to work with our limited knowledge of these factors in the short term. Drouin says that the increased power of the PlayStation 3 has helped them to create more diversity in the Assassin's Creed character animations, adding to the believability of the game. "We've put a lot more animation files in the game ... More than anything I've seen before. Therefore, variety is going to help us re-create a living and breathing world because our eyes are not used to seeing patterns in real-life movements." It is the combination of these two factors, research and technology, that, when applied correctly, will begin to strip away the problem of the uncanny valley for good.

"We've put a lot more animation files in the game ... More than anything I've seen before."
-- Alex Drouin, Animation Artistic Director on Assassin's Creed

So where does this all leave us? With a lot of work to do, it seems, but MacDorman's view is optimistic. "It is something that can be overcome through good design. By manipulating the many factors that influence whether a robot or game character is familiar or eerie, we can design around the uncanny valley for any degree of human likeness. As we come to better understand the norms of human interaction, I believe our androids will overcome the uncanny valley." Developers are showing that they are able to work around the problems that the uncanny valley presents, but as games get more and more complex, there is always more work to do. Getting more involved with robotics research, using advanced technology better, and continuing to animate the details that we notice over those that we don't will all contribute to a positive future for video game animation. In the end, though, it seems as though they've got a good grasp of what really matters.

Says Drouin: "So is our game completely realistic? NO WAY ... It's realistically fun!"

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