Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Avoiding the Uncanny Valley

I've been pondering how realistic the models are in many of the Miku Muku Dance videos I watch on YouTube.  Some movements are painstakingly crafted in the program.  And many are motion data that was created by a live dancer using capture software.  Many are so pretty that you can seriously forget that you're watching a computer program.

It can be argued that the Japanese have been leading the way with robotics and artificial life.  The illusion of life and realism seems to be their driving force. So how far can they go before you get to a point where your machines and programs become creepy?  Quite far, actually.  MIT did a report a few years back just to understand the creepy factor.  It says that for a robot to be considered in the uncanny valley, facial features need to be just a bit "not right" (my quotes).

So how does Japan avoid the creepy factor?  In my opinion, it's in using manga and anime facial features.  Stay with me on this.  A human body can be created physically or virtually to a standard of perfection, and everyone 'oohs & ahhs'.  The chest needs to be larger, or the bottom smaller, or the male parts more endowed.  Or even included!  Put a human head on it, and it scares the bejesus out of them.  If that same perfect body has an anime head on it, with it's cartoon eyes and neutral facial features, those same people have no problem whatsoever with accepting their new best friend.  I know I don't.  There have been some videos on YouTube that I've watched dozens of times just to see the body movements in dance.

Are we desensitizing ourselves from the foundations of 'true humanity'?  Not really.  We're just broadening our concepts of what is humanly acceptable.  Isaac Asimov had seen this pattern years ago when he wrote his robot and foundation novels in the 1940s and 1950s.  I think the acceptance of anime characters in games and videos is paving the way for a broader acceptance of robotics and AI in general.  I've been in the uncanny valley a few times now.  And anything that bridges that valley can only be a good thing!