Published January 22nd, 2011 by

The Uncanny Valley is the effect described in 1978 by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. He noticed that the more humanlike his robots became, the more people were attracted to them but only up to a certain point–if a robot became too realistic but not perfect, people were repelled and disgusted.

This principle is also applied to computer graphics with regards to photorealistic humans created for movies. I’ve taken this one step further and applied it to actual actors and actresses as many of them have regressed backwards from reality into the uncanny valley.

An interesting thing about the Uncanny Valley as it relates to computer graphics–it seems as though nothing that falls within the valley is necessarily any better than anthing else in the valley–as though all uncanny-ness is created equal. Stated another way, imagery is either Uncanny Valley or Not–this is no percentage scale to it’s uncanny-ness. Imagery gradually gets better and better, then falls into valley or is perfect.

To be clear about this–I have no problem with someone attempting to create 100% photoreal humans–my problem is in claiming & marketing that you succeeded when it is obvious you failed.

Let’s start with the who’s who of characters that were claimed to be “100% photoreal CGI” that was destined to end the use of real actors:

Final Fantasy. We’ll ignore the boring plot and stick to the imagery…this stuff looked more like a video game that photoreal. I consider it over marketed to say the least but barely Uncanny Valley material.

Orville Redenbacher commercial. Even people who didn’t know that Orville was dead knew something was wrong with this imagery.

The Matrix.  Let’s face it–the effects were really cool, but the only reason most of the CGI people work is because they’re so motion blurred that you don’t get to look at them. Anytime they stop long enough to look at, the valley captures them cold.

Polar Express. The Valley personified. So much massaging of motion capture that it screams Valley. The characters appears to be continuously melting and morphing from on frame to another. A nightmare of souless children and floppy motion physics.

Beowulf. Into the uncanny valley of the shadow of death we go.

Image Metrics Project Emily. Plastic skin and a mouth that has a life of it’s own. Sorry, placing color bars between cuts doesn’t fool you into thinking it was shot live. Besides, the technique was technically “rotoscoping” since the CGI was “traced” off of an existing actress–and it still echoes in the valley.

Tron: Legacy. The young Jeff Bridges CGI character named Clu. Lots of dark, high contract attempts to hide it, but a visit to the valley nonetheless. He ain’t right.

Video Games. Every video game made in the last ten years has two parts: The part they show for 99% of commercials and ads (showing great graphics that are rendered in non-real time by major facilities as mini-movies and not really part of the game itself) and the actual game itself, which is always of lower quality because it utilizes the realtime renderers available to the hardware platform of the game. And the best of either lives in the pit of the valley.

Any woman who has ever appeared in a reality show about “Housewives”, “Cougars”, etc. These CGI facsimiles of real women look odd because of the strange facial proportions. Normal humans just don’t move or look like this. The motion seems stiff and the facial geometry is pretty distorted or paralyzed as though the muscles are broken. At least, I’m pretty sure that these women are computer generated. They sure look like they were created in the uncanny valley of CGI. I think.

Uncanny Valley comparisons