Sunday, November 18, 2007
  Uncanny Valley

To write about the 1980 Ottawa Animation Festival for Heavy Metal magazine, I traveled to Ottawa that summer. The highlight of the festival for me was seeing a Brothers Quay film for the first time. One afternoon session was on the state-of-the-art and advancements in computer animation by 1980. As the lecturer spoke, it became clear that he had only one goal: to make CGI figures identical to humans. I recall he said something like, "We're getting there." And my reaction was -- why? Why not use that technology to do something imaginative? 

A few years earlier, during the 1970s, the Japanese robotics expert Masahiro Mori had proposed his "Uncanny Valley" theory to describe the way humans react emotionally to robots. The more lifelike the robot becomes, the more humans have a pleasant and positive response. But humans are repulsed when the robot becomes corpse-like or zombie-like. However, if the robot continues to develop features and characteristics so that it is identical to a human, the human reaction to this is once again positive. Unfamiliar non-human aspects are found in the Uncanny Valley. Human movement is another factor. Mori detailed the psychological aspects:

Of course, human beings themselves lie at the final goal of robotics, which is why we make an effort to build humanlike robots. For example, a robot's arms may be composed of a metal cylinder with many bolts, but to achieve a more humanlike appearance, we paint over the metal in skin tones. These cosmetic efforts cause a resultant increase in our sense of the robot's familiarity. Some readers may have felt sympathy for handicapped people they have seen who attach a prosthetic arm or leg to replace a missing limb. But recently prosthetic hands have improved greatly, and we cannot distinguish them from real hands at a glance. Some prosthetic hands attempt to simulate veins, muscles, tendons, finger nails, and finger prints, and their color resembles human pigmentation. So maybe the prosthetic arm has achieved a degree of human verisimilitude on par with false teeth. But this kind of prosthetic hand is too real and when we notice it is prosthetic, we have a sense of strangeness. So if we shake the hand, we are surprised by the lack of soft tissue and cold temperature. In this case, there is no longer a sense of familiarity. It is uncanny. In mathematical terms, strangeness can be represented by negative familiarity, so the prosthetic hand is at the bottom of the valley. So in this case, the appearance is quite human like, but the familiarity is negative. This is the uncanny valley...

In Figure 1, a healthy person is at the top of the second peak. And when we die, we fall into the trough of the uncanny valley. Our body becomes cold, our color changes, and movement ceases. Therefore, our impression of death can be explained by the movement from the second peak to the uncanny valley as shown by the dashed line in the figure. We might be happy this line is into the still valley of a corpse and that of not the living dead! I think this explains the mystery of the uncanny valley: Why do we humans have such a feeling of strangeness? Is this necessary? I have not yet considered it deeply, but it may be important to our self-preservation.

This theory can also apply to animated films, although films like Tim Burton's whimsical Corpse Bride and John Semper's witty Crypt of Creeporia seem to be in a league of their own. Creeporia cleverly combines animation with live-action lampooning and razor-sharp comedy timing to mock the macabre. 

Corpse Bride adds a cuteness factor to visually appealing characters (both dead and alive), altering the color palette to transpose the land of the living and the land of the dead. The film interweaves references to Cab Calloway, Ray Harryhausen, Hamlet, Peter Lorre, Bojangles and Upstairs, Downstairs (1971). When the bride's hand falls off and goes scuttling across the keyboard, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) comes to mind, as does that disembodied hand Milton Subotsky used in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973). According to Russ Jones, Subotsky was delighted to discover filmdom's cheapest special effect: just wind up the mechanical hand, and it begins crawling.

When limbs fall off the corpse bride, it's amusing. But what if a biographical film about cartoonist Al Capp were to depict the day Capp's prosthetic leg fell off in the middle of a hotel lobby?

When Final Fantasy (2001) was released, 150 artists sitting at computers in Honolulu were ready to begin work on the sequel. When the film bombed, they were told to pack up and leave. The Polar Express (2004) left some to wonder why they were seeing a rubbery ersatz Tom Hanks instead of the real Tom Hanks. Refusing to give up, Robert Zemeckis has returned to the Uncanny Valley with more plastic people in Beowulf (2007).

But now jump back to 1994, a time when many thought Kenneth Branagh was joking when he said, "It is scary. Soon we won't need actors. In fact, I saw some demonstration the other day, a completely computer-generated 3-D person." Two years later, when MSNBC began (July 15, 1996), each weeknight they offered a primetime hour-long show about computers and technology, The Site, hosted by Soledad O'Brien. At the halfway mark each night, Soledad walked over to an espresso bar on the set and held an unscripted conversation with an animated cartoon character, Dev Null. The character was the creation of Leo Laporte in a motion capture suit, and as Soledad read viewers' emailed questions about computers, Laporte would give spontaneous answers. In 1999, Laporte detailed the creation of Dev Null and The Site:

My history with ZDTV goes back to 1994 when I was hired to do a show for them with Gina Smith called The Personal Computing Show. It aired for about ten minutes on CNBC in the fall of 1994 before being cancelled. Good thing, too. It was godawful. After that I continued to work for ZD developing show ideas that would never see the light of day. Late in 1995 I got a call from my boss saying that we might be able to do a deal with a new channel that NBC was starting with Microsoft. They were looking for a daily hour-long news magazine on technology. I wrote a 90-page treatment which we pitched for the NBC bigwigs at 30 Rock in a meeting that looked straight out of a Seinfeld episode. NBC loved it and agreed to co-produce the show with ZD. We went into development and launched when MSNBC launched in spring 1996. I had hoped to be a regular part of the show. ZD had promised me a role as chief correspondent and weekend anchor, but the NBC execs decided they didn't much like me on the air. I think the exact quote was, "Leo? Bleech!" Needless to say, this was incredibly disappointing. In fact, at the time, I felt like it was a career-ending blow.

The coordinating producer took pity on me, however, and offered a way to get on the air without anyone at NBC knowing. The show was to feature a virtual character, and the fellow they had been using to play the part wasn't working out. Would I like to try out? Virtual reality characters are essentially cartoon characters that are animated in real time using monster computers from Silicon Graphics. An actor wears a sensor suit that records his movements and relays them to the SGI Onyx which animates the character in real time based on the actor's motion. In the case of Dev, puppeteers animated his head and facial features at the same time. Because it happens live the character can interact with real people. The notion was that our human anchor, Soledad O'Brien, would spend a few minutes each night talking with an animated coffee bar hipster who had his finger on the pulse of Silicon Valley.
One of our producers, Matt Hawn, came up with the clever name of Dev Null, a play on the UNIX term for a non-existent device. I wrote (or more often ad-libbed) the copy and danced around in the suit, and puppeteers Karsten Bondy and Kristine Moss arched his eyebrows and spun his purple hair. The combination was a success. I think Dev was one of the best parts of The Site. He was mentioned in The New Yorker as Soledad's "purple pineapple-haired" sidekick, praised in the New York Times as "the real stand-out on The Site," and even won an Emmy award in 1997. And best of all, he is immortalized as "Zev," MSNBC's idiotic animated pundit in Al Franken's book, Why Not Me?

When MSNBC cancelled The Site in November, 1997, Dev died with it. The rights to Dev were split between ZDTV, MSNBC and the company that designed his appearance and software, Protozoa. His software still lives, I'm told, on the SGI Onyx in our studios - the same machine that runs Tilde - but the technology used to create Tilde is very different. We've talked about a Dev reunion, but the technical hurdles are pretty steep, and the demand is not particularly great. I loved doing Dev, and I appreciate the opportunity it offered to do something entirely new, but I doubt Dev will ever come back for real. His day is over. For a year and a half, I was the only person in the world working daily on TV as a virtual character. It was great fun: I got to say things no real human would ever be allowed to say, and I flirted like the dickens with the gorgeous Soledad O'Brien. And we were inventing a totally different kind of TV. But just like Pinocchio, all I ever wanted was to be a real boy.

Everything about Dev Null was successful--the character design, the coffee bar setting, the spontaneity, the content of tech info, the occasional flirting of cartoon man ("Show me your tattoo.") and real-life woman ("Do I look like the kind of person who would have a tattoo?"). As evident in the clip below, Dev's face could be wildly expressive.

After a year into the run of The Site, Dev changed. It was a minor change, but there it was. Dev had been reprogrammed to look less like a cartoon and more human. And this change was somehow disturbing. Overnight, Dev became less likable. He had begun a descent into the Uncanny Valley.

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is the editor of Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood (2003), reviewed by Paul Gravett.

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